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Lawrence school board votes to close Kennedy Elementary to grades K-5

The Lawrence school board voted Monday to convert Kennedy Elementary to an early childhood community center and transition 170 K-5 students to Cordley, New York and Prairie Park for the 2021-2022 school year.

The vote was 6-1 with board member Carole Cadue-Blackwood voting against the plan. Cadue-Blackwood said she grew up on the east side of Lawrence and had mixed feelings about the plan because the funding the district had proposed for the building wasn’t guaranteed.

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“I’m worried about property values going down and also the safety of our students crossing 23rd (Street),” Cadue-Blackwood said.

Other board members also voiced concerns about transportation challenges brought up by community members and the impact the transition during a pandemic could have on Kennedy families.

Citing a future filled with budget challenges, board member Shannon Kimball said she would support the proposal because the district needs to maximize existing infrastructure.

“We have some really heavy budget issues that we’re gonna to have to deal with,” Kimball said. “And we’re gonna have to deal with those regardless of whether we decide to participate in this partnership to expand early childhood opportunities.”

During conversations with the board, Superintendent Dr. Anthony Lewis tried to alleviate concerns by offering the possible implementation of a before-school program at Prairie Park Elementary. He said ongoing conversations about transportation assistance for students who live less than 2.5 miles from their new school continue, but the price tag could come in between $116,000 and $135,000.

Board president Kelly Jones said she wanted to acknowledge the grief the transition could cause, but she could support the plan if resources were allocated for students’ social-emotional supports and transportation. Jones said if the district is unable to provide transportation, the district should collaborate with Safe Routes to School and city staff to find solutions to protect children who have to walk to school.

“The things that make me feel a little hopeful about this, I appreciate that Dr. (Anna) Stubblefield  is collaborating with Boys and Girls Club and we are looking at potentially increasing or providing the possibility for before-school care, which I think is critical to families in terms of their ability to maintain their jobs if they’ve been relying on that as a community there at Kennedy,” Jones said.

Two community members opposed to the proposal spoke during the meeting and criticized the plan as having too many unknowns.

Lena Barker encouraged board members to walk from the Kennedy neighborhood to New York or Prairie Park and judge whether it’s really safe for students to walk those routes.

Namaste Manney told the board she, too, had concerns about approving a plan without specific information on who building tenants would be or what services would be provided in the Kennedy building.

During his presentation, Lewis invited “potential partners” from early childhood organizations to present the benefits of the proposal to the board. Hugh Carter, vice president of external affairs at the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce, told the board the economic impact of an early childhood community center would benefit the community, but especially families with low incomes and affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Citing the need for high-quality childcare for these families, Lewis said there are fewer than 200 childcare openings available for the 1,200 children born in Douglas County annually. He said the center could provide space not only for children but also training and development for early childhood programs.

“If you think about it, this really is our equity work,” Lewis told the board.

Lewis said the district would begin working with teachers and families on the transition immediately.

Budget update

Before the regular meeting, executive director of finance Kathy Johnson led a work session that painted a dismal financial future for the district. Johnson explained to the board the impact of COVID-19 on the district’s enrollment decline will likely be felt for years to come.

The district experienced an enrollment drop of nearly 650 students this school year. Johnson noted the district’s decision to start the academic year in distance learning could be attributed, at least in part, to that decline.

Until the current school year is audited by the state — possibly this month — the district won’t know the full budget impact, but the district estimates a $1,158,000 funding shortfall in the current school year.

Johnson said uncertainties like rising utility costs impact the budget, noting that the district is still awaiting utility bills from February’s bitter cold spell. Johnson’s presentation also said a 15% increase in property insurance costs, the loss of a Parents as Teachers grant, state funding issues and more retirements this year also have contributed to the district’s budget challenges.

Johnson also provided a legislative update for the board. Recent legislation affecting district students includes House Bill 2039, which would require 11th or 12th graders to take a one-semester course on financial literacy and pass a civics test before graduating. Senate Bill 55, which is on its way to the governor, prohibits transgender athletes from competing on girls’ and women’s athletic teams. And funding for K-12 public education will have to wait until the Legislature returns in May.

Outcomes from our preview:

• Action: Adopt procedures pursuant to Senate Bill 40, which gives local school boards authority to make decisions about student attendance, educational models and safety interventions to combat the spread of COVID-19, according to a news brief by the Kansas Association of School Boards.

Context: Any employee, student or parent or guardian of a student who feels aggrieved by a board’s decision may request a hearing. This vote authorizes the board to adopt rules and procedures and gives Lewis, the superintendent, or his designee the authority to conduct hearings on behalf of the district. The bill was signed into law by Gov. Laura Kelly on March 24.

Passed, 6-0. Cadue-Blackwood’s vote did not appear to be recorded, although she attended remotely.

Minutes after the board adopted procedures to hold such proceedings, the board conducted its first hearing. Scott Huffman, a parent, requested the hearing after being denied entry to an athletic event at Lawrence High School’s outdoor stadium for not wearing a face mask, according to the agenda packet.

Lewis told Huffman the district follows health and KSHSAA guidelines, both indoors and outdoors. The board voted 6-0 to uphold the mask requirement on all district properties.

• Action: Authorize purchase of 2,500 iPad carry cases and screen covers for elementary students’ devices for $36,000.

Context: Since the 2019-2020 school year, all district elementary students have been provided an iPad for educational use at home and in school.

Passed, 6-0, on consent agenda. Cadue-Blackwood’s vote was not recorded.

Other notes

Lewis encouraged families to register their students by May 1 in order for the district to plan for next school year. All district schools will be in session Friday, April 16, as an inclement weather make-up day.

The board’s next regular meeting is at 6 p.m. Monday, April 26. Find the board meeting’s agenda and related documents here.

To submit written public comment or to participate via WebEx, email patroncommentary@usd497.org before 5 p.m. April 26. Patrons will receive a link to join the videoconference by phone or computer.

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