After hearing several possible school closure scenarios on top of others the Lawrence school district’s Boundary Advisory Committee has heard over the past two weeks, school board President Erica Hill asked if any could be eliminated.
“We’re just getting more and more information with 11 or 10 different scenarios, and it’s — I’m not sure that’s an effective use of time,” she said, an hour and a half into Wednesday’s meeting.
Former school board member GR Gordon-Ross said he agreed that it was part of the committee’s job to narrow down the proposals they’ve heard. In recent weeks, Zach Conrad, executive director of data and technology, has brought nearly a dozen scenarios to the BAC that would involve closing one school or a combination of schools as the district attempts to grapple with a budget shortfall estimated at up to $3.85 million.
The proposal that has garnered the most attention and community feedback is Scenario 1, which would close Broken Arrow, New York, Pinckney, and Woodlawn elementaries and repurpose Liberty Memorial Central Middle School. LMCMS students would go to Billy Mills, Broken Arrow students would go to Schwegler, and LMCMS would become an elementary school for New York, Pinckney and Woodlawn students. Broken Arrow, next door to Billy Mills, would become part of that middle school.
Some BAC members began to voice a desire to take that proposal — which could also shift kids in and out of other schools — off the table. The district estimates that it would yield about $3.25 million in savings, but it would have major implications for school families and staff essentially districtwide. It has also raised big equity concerns as many community members feel the proposal unfairly targets schools on the city’s east side and in lower-income neighborhoods.
Conrad had started to ask the group if anyone was opposed to eliminating Scenario 1 as an option when Carissa Miles, principal of Southwest Middle School, asked Conrad if it would be possible to vote anonymously.
“I worry that this is putting people in an unfortunate situation to have to vote very publicly for things that are pretty emotional,” she said.
Conrad suggested that he could create a Google Form for BAC members to vote on all the closure scenarios, and then he could present the results of that vote next week.
Gordon-Ross said he appreciated Conrad’s willingness to do that, but “A lot of the concern over this process and over the years is one of transparency, and I think doing it that way (anonymously) tends to lead to an issue of transparency,” he said.
“It’s a public meeting, a public committee. People have to make hard choices. The board has to make hard choices,” Gordon-Ross continued. “I’m willing to vote that way, but I’m also more than willing to put my name and a face to a vote as well.”
School board member Kay Emerson said she agreed with those sentiments.
Conrad, too, said he would second Gordon-Ross’ thoughts.
“You’re committee members, you’re charged with this, you agreed to that,” Conrad said. “It is difficult, but I think that it’s also appropriate, being representatives on this committee, that we do take ownership over the decisions that we make, as tough as those are. Our board members are going to have to do the same thing.”
Ultimately, Conrad said “maybe we can talk about what exactly that looks like,” but he didn’t mention changing his plans to send out the Google Form for anonymous voting. He will present the results at the beginning of next week’s meeting.
As the meeting was wrapping up, Emerson told Conrad she had to mention it or otherwise she thought she’d have some regrets: The BAC has not looked at proposals that would close schools on the west side of town, because Conrad had said “there is no cost savings in that, or very minimal if there is any.”
“I think that our community deserves to see that,” Emerson said.
“We could pursue moving west to east but it’s not in line with what our charge was to do when it came to responding to the Budget Evaluation Committee and those subcommittee requests,” Conrad said. “So I would say that we could do it but I might want to postpone that.”
According to a timeline Superintendent Anthony Lewis shared Monday, the school board will need to decide on Feb. 14 whether to publish notices for public hearings on closing one or more schools. If so, those public hearings would be held on or around March 9. The board would make final decisions on April 11.
Other notes from the meeting:
• Conrad last week told the BAC that a proposal that would close Hillcrest Elementary would make it the only school that could close, and it wouldn’t be very cost-effective. However, Wednesday he took committee members through a slew of other “singletons” that would close just one of the other schools that had already been mentioned, and the often complex boundary changes that would come with them.
• Conrad provided some numbers for what possible “grade centers” could look like. Some of the current elementary schools would serve kindergarten through second grade students, and the others would serve third through fifth grades. Conrad said it would not be possible to do the same with middle schools. Committee members generally agreed that he should not pursue that option further.
The Budget and Program Evaluation Committee, which is considering school closures along with different potential cost-cutting measures, meets from 4 to 5:30 p.m. Thursday (Jan. 27).
The Lawrence school board’s next regularly scheduled meeting is set for Feb. 14. However, Kathy Johnson, executive director of finance, said Wednesday that it looked like there would be a work session with the board on Monday, Jan. 31, to talk “holistically” about all budget scenarios — not just school closures, but other options as well. Then, at BPEC’s Feb. 9 meeting, that committee will “run the equity lens through a lot of these scenarios,” Johnson said.
The BAC meets again from 4 to 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 2, according to a news release the district sent out after the meeting.
All meetings will be at district offices, 110 McDonald Drive, and they will be livestreamed on the district’s YouTube channel.
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Emma Bascom (she/her) reported for The Lawrence Times from December 2021 through May 2022. Read more of her work for the Times here.