The Lawrence school district is considering several proposals to cut costs amid a multimillion-dollar budget crisis, and the ones that would yield the greatest monetary savings would involve closing and repurposing multiple district buildings.
The timeline for school board members to make a decision is a fairly tight one. Board members must decide by the end of the month whether to continue the conversation about closing schools because they would need to hold public hearings on Feb. 14 — and if they go that route, they need to publish legal notices ahead of those hearings. Final decisions would need to come in March or April.
But all of that just seems to have lit a fire under many Lawrence community members who are coming together to mobilize and “#SaveOurSchools497.”
Parents, students and school community members last week chalked uplifting messages on the sidewalks of schools that could face closures. Activists, including those affiliated with Lawrence Education Justice Collective, have held meetings to organize, strategize and start listing out their questions and demands.
They’re also planning to rally ahead of Monday’s school board meeting — even with the knowledge that an hourlong executive session to start the meeting will undoubtedly keep those who wish to give public comments waiting for some time.
Literal signs of support for the schools are sprouting up all over the community. The top image on this post is a message of love for local neighborhood schools from the East Lawrence studio of artist Dave Loewenstein.
There are other budget-cutting proposals under consideration that would help save on costs without closing schools. But the most visible proposals — and the ones that are most daunting to many Lawrence school families and district staff members — are those that could close or repurpose multiple elementary schools and a middle school.
Eight of the district’s 13 elementary schools are Title I schools, meaning they qualify for extra federal funding to help minimize disparities in math and reading. To qualify for Title I funding, families with low incomes must make up at least 40% of the school body.
All five of the elementary schools that could face closures — Broken Arrow, New York, Pinckney, Woodlawn and Hillcrest — qualify for Title I, according to a recent presentation from Kathy Johnson, executive director of finance for the district.
In addition to the messages of support around the community, several Lawrence groups have shared statements in support of schools and in solidarity with school communities. That includes the PAL-CWA, the union of classified district staff members.
“We continue to believe that the District Administration is offering us a false choice: we can close schools so that we can increase classified staff wages or we can accept poverty wages and our schools can stay open,” the union said in a statement Wednesday. “Proposing school closures as the best option to solving our budget problems pits our most marginalized communities against one another — our East side students, families and schools and our low paid classified staff (many of whom also have children in East side schools).”
The Indigenous Community Center of Lawrence posted a statement to Facebook on Sunday, noting that historically, school closings and consolidations disproportionately affect those with low incomes who lack the resources to commute or choose other options.
“We are a community organization that seeks to provide a place to engage in and develop the spiritual, physical, emotional well-being, and growth for the betterment of the Indigenous community while creating understanding, and cultivating relationships with the greater Lawrence area,” the statement read. “The school closures will affect every aspect of our elementary student’s health in an already troubling time.”
The statement continues with a call for the community to come together to create a solution, and for the district to allow the people of Lawrence to guide the important decision. “Education is the most powerful tool we have to create change and understanding.”
The East Lawrence Neighborhood Association in a letter to school board members on Sunday encouraged district leaders to recall the not-too-distant past.
“In East Lawrence, we also have a long memory. We remember past attempts to close schools, and how all too often we were told that it was ‘inevitable’ when it was not,” the letter read. “Just ten years ago this happened. East Lawrence fought alongside others to counter the district’s attempt to close both Cordley and New York schools. With passion and purpose, parents, teachers and students crafted a proposal that clearly showed a path forward without those closures, and we were successful.”
“Today, some district administrators are once again pushing a deeply traumatic overhaul of our community’s school system, while not engaging with parents, students and teachers. It is a terrible mistake,” the letter continued.
ELNA said district leaders should again convene working groups of parents and teachers, and make space to hear the firsthand experiences of those who would be most impacted by closures — the students.
The Lawrence school board is scheduled to meet at 6 p.m. Monday, Jan. 24. Read more about what’s on the agenda at this link.