June 17, 2021
Lawrence, US 88 F
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Lawrence school district faces scrutiny in plan to close Kennedy classrooms

The Kennedy Elementary community showed up again Wednesday night for the last of two virtual meetings to discuss the Lawrence Public Schools’ proposal to close the school’s K-5 classrooms and convert the building to an early childhood community center.

As reported previously by The Lawrence Times, the district wants to form community partnerships to expand early childhood services and cut costs to make up for funding shortfalls caused by declining enrollment, much of it due to the COVID-19 pandemic. If approved by the school board, the plan would move about 172 Kennedy K-5 students to one of three schools: Cordley, New York or Prairie Park.

About 60 stakeholders interacted with the school district’s leadership to ask questions and share their frustrations about the plan. Like the last meeting, participants pressed Superintendent Dr. Anthony Lewis on issues involving equity, facility usage, transportation, staffing and supports for vulnerable students should the plan be approved by the school board next week.

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Lewis told the forum that schools couldn’t have predicted the impact of COVID-19, which many school districts have blamed for 5-6% overall declines in enrollment.

“We’re right there in that boat,” Lewis said. “So we have to adjust our sails again, and this time significantly. So, although we are not proposing to close the doors to Kennedy we do acknowledge that we are closing K-5 and we do acknowledge that loss there.”

Lewis said he wanted to operate with a “high-level of transparency” and encouraged the forum to address him with their concerns.

Transportation challenges persist

Students crossing busy routes such as 23rd and 19th streets and Haskell Avenue on the way to their new schools has been brought up repeatedly as a safety concern.

Julie Boyle, executive director of communications for LPS, addressed those concerns in an emailed response to The Lawrence Times:

“Student and staff safety is the district’s first priority. Elementary students safely cross busy streets, including 23rd, Massachusetts, Iowa, and 6th Street, every day with the assistance of school crossing guards and in some cases, signalization. The city studies traffic safety, makes decisions about where crossing guards and signalization is needed, and provides these services for the community. The community’s Safe Routes to School program examines barriers to neighborhood walkability and identifies the safest routes for children who walk or bike to school.”

But opponents say crossing 23rd Street and Ousdahl Road (south of Schwegler Elementary) just isn’t the same as crossing 23rd Street on the east side of town where street signals are more spread out and speed limits increase as commuters drive toward Kansas City during rush hour.

The district could not provide current figures on the number of Kennedy students who walk or bike to school. In the latest published Safe Routes to Schools plan compiled from the 2019-2020 school year, 42% of Kennedy students live within a half-mile walkshed of the school. A walkshed is a walkable area reachable on foot. Within a 1-mile walkshed of Kennedy, another 40% of students reside. Whether they walk, bike or ride, a significant number of Kennedy students live close to their school, according to the report. 

And 2020 data from the Kansas Department of Education shows 62% of Kennedy’s students are economically disadvantaged.

Students who live within 2.5 miles of their school typically do not receive transportation services from the district unless they qualify through other services, including special education and English as a Second Language programs.

At the forum Wednesday night, Lewis told the crowd the district is exploring the possibility of providing transportation to some students who would change schools if the plan passes. He said available options might include vans (instead of buses) and lowering the distance from home to school to an amount lesser than 2.5 miles. 

Kelli Snyder told Lewis her eighth-grade daughter attended Kennedy and said the majority of her child’s classmates walked to and from school, and most of them needed to get to school early for free or reduced breakfast.

“Walking 2 miles takes a really long time, especially for the youngest of students,” Snyder said. “With transportation being such a crucial part of a child’s day, this proposal really shouldn’t be considered without formal transportation plans in place.”

Snyder expressed frustration that the proposal seemed like it was being “rammed through” and urged Lewis to make a formal plan before the proposal goes before the school board.

Budget shortfalls

With the district citing declining K-5 enrollment as a reason for the plan, Lena Barker asked what “alternative options” the district explored besides using Kennedy as an early childhood community center. Lewis said the district’s Budget and Program Evaluation Committee explored options such as multi-age classrooms, which are classes where students across multiple grade levels learn together.

School board president Kelly Jones provided more details.

“The options we looked at, none of them left us with something as positive and on-track for our equity and goals for the district as an early childhood education center,” Jones told the online crowd. “All of the options left us with a lot of hurt and no good to come from it. It’s a tough spot to be in, in terms of the options that were presented to us.”

The district estimates a budget shortfall of $1.8 million during the current school year and a permanent and ongoing loss of $1.2 million into school year 2021-22, and potentially 2022-23, if enrollment doesn’t increase significantly, according to an email sent to the Times from Boyle.

Community members asked Lewis what mental health and transition supports might be available if students have to change schools.

Lewis said the district would be “intentional” in its use of COVID-related Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief money, known as ESSER funds. While the $6 million fund cannot be used to fill budget gaps, the district can provide pandemic-related supports for students this summer in the form of academics and social-emotional health programs and services, Lewis said.

Enrollment analysis

Lawrence resident and education advocate David Unekis, 51, served on the district’s consolidation working group after the school board voted to close Wakarusa Valley Elementary School in 2011. The group studied data and scenarios to consolidate schools in central and east Lawrence with the possibility of closing more. Ultimately, the financial situation improved for the district and closing more schools wasn’t necessary.

Unekis, whose daughter attended Lawrence public schools and now attends college in St. Louis, said the money the district would save by closing K-5 classrooms at Kennedy represents a small amount of the district budget (about $722,000 of a $179 million pot), but the impact could be substantial on the ground.

Because the district would still own the property should the proposal prevail, the cost of maintaining building will remain, and the bulk of the savings would come from reduced staff, as shown in the figure below. Higher teacher-to-student ratios will result at Cordley, Prairie Park and New York elementaries, critics say, and the quality of education will suffer.

Superintendent Dr. Anthony Lewis shows community members how the district could save money by converting K-5 classrooms at Kennedy Elementary to early childhood programs during the April 7 “Kennedy Conversation.”

With a shortage of affordable housing in Lawrence and room to grow in the Prairie Park neighborhood, some community members specifically question how closing Kennedy K-5 classrooms would benefit the Prairie Park neighborhood if student migration there brings Prairie Park Elementary to full capacity.

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“The area near Prairie Park represents some of the only area east of Iowa Street for the city to ultimately develop more housing,” Unekis told the Times via email. “The lack of available lots to build housing despite high demand is one of the biggest (challenges) facing city government right now, (and) it is highly likely that between this and the addition of Kennedy students that Prairie Park will be well over capacity in under 10 years.”

In its 2019-2020 enrollment analysis report, the district’s school planning consultant RSP & Associates designates portions of the Prairie Park neighborhood as areas for 10-year “potential growth.” The report lists capacity at Prairie Park Elementary at 80.4% for the current school year and 81.8% for the 2021-2022 school year. The report projects capacity for the 2024-2025 school year at 87.5%. Recommended building capacity utilization is between 85% and 95%, according to RSP.

In this screenshot from the RSP & Associates enrollment report, the Prairie Park neighborhood is identified as a potential area for growth.

Boyle told the Times that elementary schools contacted students who registered but did not attend school this year to ask if they would return to the district this fall. Boyle shared the results with the Times via email. 

“The families of 5 of 7 (71%) Kennedy students and 9 of 13 (69%) Prairie Park students indicated to their schools that they plan for their students to return next fall. This data is preliminary until the families register their students for the 2021-2022 school year. The district average across the 14 elementary schools was 55%,” Boyle wrote. 

Next steps

The district has launched a Frequently Asked Questions webpage about the Kennedy proposal. Find it here.

Lewis encouraged stakeholders to tune in to a live work session at 5 p.m. Monday, April 12, on Midco Channel 26 or via livestream here. The school board is scheduled to consider the proposal at its board meeting, which follows at 6 p.m. Find the full agenda here.

To submit written commentary or to participate via WebEx, email patroncommentary@usd497.org prior to audience participation time on the agenda. Patrons will receive a link to join the videoconference by phone or computer.

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