Editorial: We all have a role to play in this school closing debate
photo by: Journal-World Photo Illustration
It is tempting to say leaders of the Lawrence school district have gotten themselves into quite a mess. It would be more accurate to say the entire community has.
Tension is building quickly in Lawrence over the idea of closing elementary and middle schools. Expect the tension to get even greater as taxpayers remember this: The district is talking about closing schools that had millions of dollars of improvements made to them just four short years ago, in some cases.
Remember that $92.5 million bond issue in 2013? It largely funded improvements to elementary schools, and many of those improvements weren’t completed until 2018. Among the schools being talked about for closure are New York Elementary, $5.6 million in improvements; Pinckney Elementary, $6.9 million in improvements; Woodlawn Elementary, $2.4 million in improvements; and Broken Arrow Elementary, $1.3 million in improvements. The district already has closed Kennedy Elementary. The district had spent $8.8 million improving that school, the second highest amount of any school included in the bond issue.
In the business world, spending that much money to improve stores, for example, to only a few years later close those stores would spark a lot of discussion in the board room. Maybe the district equivalent will spark some discussion in the school board room too. When it does, it will be worth remembering that voters approved the 2013 bond issue with about 72% of the vote.
Lawrence voters really love the idea of neighborhood schools. Lawrence demographics, not so much. There have been a few Lawrence school district leaders over the years who have been talking about how Lawrence’s enrollment figures don’t match up with Lawrence’s school building count.
“Frankly, we probably have too many square feet for the number of elementary kids we have,” the president of the 2009 Lawrence school board, Scott Morgan, said as part of a discussion to close some schools. “I’d much rather put money into programs and staff than I would into buildings.” Ask around whether that idea was popular. Or, better yet, just remind yourself of what happened four years later: a $92.5 million school bond election to enhance and, in some cases, enlarge elementary schools.
None of that history, though, solves today’s problems. Perhaps, though, it will help remind us we are all in this together. Here are a few ideas for the community to consider as this important debate heats up:
• Transparency, transparency, transparency. It has not been the school district’s strong suit, but it should live by it during this debate. Start talking about the savings of these potential closings sooner rather than later, and show your calculations. Give the public everything it wants about how much administrators are paid in the district and how much the district spends on athletics. While it is not clear that cutting those expenses will solve the district’s problems, it is certain that anything less than full disclosure will increase the public’s anger.
• Think like a business. The district needs to make its business case better for why it is considering converting New York Elementary into a Montessori school. Why New York? There are any number of west Lawrence schools with better access that are closer to your target audience. There is a reason why the largest Montessori school in Lawrence is in west Lawrence. If the district has misgivings about competing with that school, then this is probably not the right venture for the district. Is there a better business case to be made for a STEM magnet school? There are far fewer of them in the area, meaning there may be a larger untapped market.
• Prepare to compromise. This is as much for the community as the board. It is going to be difficult for Lawrence to afford neighborhood schools that only serve children who live in that particular neighborhood. Lawrence’s growth pattern is uneven, which creates too many inefficiencies in school operations. But Lawrence might be able to afford neighborhood schools, if they use busing to spread the students around. Might.
That will be nightmarish at times, as school boundaries will have to be changed periodically to rebalance. That’s why most communities have gotten away from neighborhood schools. But Lawrence voters weren’t wrong in saying years ago that neighborhoods are healthier when they have a school in them. Putting up with the busing and the shuffling might be the price to pay for keeping those neighborhood schools open.
In other words, voting for the bond issue years ago was the easy part. Now comes the harder work.