Rebecca Zarazan Dunn: People of Lawrence should commit to a shared effort to save our schools (Column)

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Note: The Lawrence Times runs opinion columns and letters to the Times written by community members with varying perspectives on local issues. These pieces do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Times staff.

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In a pandemic of extraordinary grieving, our community has been exposed to a new grief: the threat of multiple neighborhood schools closing.

The Lawrence public school district and Lawrence school board have been charged with difficult, landscape-changing decisions over the next few months that could inevitably affect some of the most vulnerable and marginalized children, caregivers, and communities. Broken Arrow, Hillcrest, New York, Pinckney and Woodlawn elementary schools and Liberty Memorial Central Middle School have been offered up as prospective shutterings at the end of this academic year as a tactic to relieve a 10-plus-year issue now taking the shape of a $3.4 million deficit. 

While sitting in the budget committee meeting Wednesday evening, watching the reality of spreadsheet after spreadsheet showing cuts the district deems inevitable in order to cover this deficit, I kept squinting at the numbers trying to make out their faces: the teachers, the support staff, the principals, the students … Data can only speak one language; data can be made malleable; data is dehumanizing. When I look at those numbers emphasizing school closings, I see an agenda.

Though the immediate obligation is between $3.2 and $3.85 million, the district holds a goal of $7 million. Out of all the proposed cuts outlined (and not outlined), the focus is on the closing of schools in hopes of finding the savings, but at what cost? The costs have yet to be identified by the district, but we can lean on research and experience in this endeavor. Beyond their educational capacities, these neighborhood schools are havens, sources of nutrition and wellness; they lessen disparities, and they radiate a deeply rooted history of this city.

As a parent with children in two of the proposed schools, I also understand the necessity and degree of change that must occur within a short amount of time within our district, but not at the drastic expense of closing multiple neighborhood schools. Direct service staff will lose their jobs, ironically without the evaluation of administrative overhead reductions. The district believes these school closures will not only resolve the deficit, but also result in boosting staff wages. What is lacking in that projection is how school closures will ultimately fill classrooms beyond capacity with less support staff.

Working at a decent wage should not come at an expense to these pandemic-exhausted educators. It’s true fewer students are enrolled in these pandemic years (in contrast to previously growing or steady enrollment rates since 2010, according to figures from the Kansas State Department of Education), but is a pandemic an accurate fortune teller?

I don’t have enough fingers and toes to count the times I’ve heard “the district no longer wishes to put a band-aid over this issue.” The closing of schools is a band-aid move. A budgetary band-aid of shuttering schools will ultimately fester. When the directive is to close some of the schools serving lower-income neighborhoods, care and attention are not the objective.

“People mourn institutions the way they also mourn people,” Dr. Eve Ewing writes, explaining institutional mourning. “This phenomenon is relevant especially in communities that are vulnerable, where people often have a higher reliance on shared institutions because they have fewer individual resources.” 

If our schools are shuttered, the institutional mourning will be profound, but as a Lawrencian I’m optimistic we will not witness that outcome. Where the district sees opportunity in this budget crisis, I see opportunity as well:

This is an opportunity to validate our school board within this community, to affirm and champion them in these upcoming months. We have the opportunity to promote allegiance, write to them, cheer them on, and applaud them in a shared effort to save our schools — not close them.

This is an opportunity to listen to our school leaders. Their professional experience and connection to the neighborhoods they serve firsthand is valuable in making student-centered decisions. Listen to our principals, teachers, counselors, learning coaches, and support staff. Listen to them; lift them up.

This is an opportunity to acknowledge the caregivers and parents who work tirelessly to continue to provide the best possible opportunities for these students. Your concerns are well founded.

This is an opportunity to remember the beginnings of this city, founded by abolitionists, who believed in education freedom and equality. A place where we have risen up to fight for equality time and time again. 

This is an opportunity to reach out to our local businesses, neighborhood associations, Lawrence Chamber of Commerce, Lawrence Schools Foundation, and Lawrence City Commission. We need your support. The success and future of our city depends on our schools.

This is an opportunity to evaluate our district, align our core values, grow new pathways for communication, and emphasize outcomes beneficial to students and staff.

Most importantly, this is an opportunity to comfort our children. Tell them their schools are not disposable; that they are valued, each and every one of them. That these extensions of their identity are valued. That we will do what we can within our being to support them always.

The pandemic has made it blatantly clear how much our city and cities across the country rely on these institutions more than a place of learning, but as a nexus of living and thriving. I believe in our fine city and how those same values are mirrored in these schools. I believe in participatory communication and progress as this discussion will affirm just how much Lawrence actively shows up and protects our kin and future.

Learn more about the Save Our Schools 497 campaign at and follow #saveourschools497 on social media.

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