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Where do they stand? Lawrence school board members share thoughts on school closure proposals

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Article updated at 4:12 p.m. Friday:

Facing a budget deficit between $3.2 and $3.85 million, Lawrence school board members have difficult decisions ahead. 

Two groups have been tasked with proposing where and how to go about making cuts to save money: the Budget and Program Evaluation Committee (BPEC), which has looked at many areas to identify cuts, and the Boundary Advisory Committee (BAC), which is to monitor population shifts and ensure that “equity, district growth, budget, and transportation are considered in boundary changes.” 

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The proposals that appear to yield the greatest monetary savings for the district involve closing schools — a very difficult prospect for many school families and staff members. 

Neither committee has decided on the final proposals that they will send on to the school board for consideration, though the board did look at some of BPEC’s cost-cutting ideas in December.

This week, many BAC members seemed to indicate that they did not want to propose an option that would close or repurpose five school buildings, but they had not yet taken a formal vote. Many BPEC members, however, had voted the opposite in an anonymous straw poll. 

But school board members will have to decide during their Feb. 14 meeting whether school closures are to remain on the table. That’s because they would need to publish notices and hold public hearings if they want to keep considering closing one or more schools. If they do, those public hearings would be held on or around March 9, and the board would make final decisions on April 11. 

Where do they stand right now, bearing in mind that they haven’t received complete proposals from the BPEC and the BAC? 

These board members said that as the situation stood at the end of this week, they were opposed to closing schools:

• Kay Emerson. “I have some serious, serious doubts on this timeline and being able to create what I think should be a trustworthy process. As is, frankly, I’m a no,” she said. “The reason I say this is because when I’m looking at this, I want to know information about what makes sense for our families with limited options. I want to know what research backs that this direction is best for our staff and students. I want to also be responsive to what the community is telling me. The community is loudly, loudly telling me — and us — no.”

• Andrew Nussbaum. “At this point, if a recommendation was brought to the school board in regards to closing neighborhood schools my vote would be no,” Nussbaum said. He said his priorities in balancing the budget would include “ensuring we do not make cuts that perpetuate historical harm and systemic oppression of marginalized groups; looking at quantitative and qualitative data as both significant and important; predicting the consequences of the decisions we do make; centering the most directly affected/impacted; prioritizing classified staff and neighborhood schools; focused on cuts furthest away from classrooms; redistributing resources away from (Educational Support Center) building and administrative costs and towards classified staff, students, and certified staff; and listening to various stakeholder groups about alternative and creative solutions alongside and beyond the BPEC committee recommendations.” 

• Carole Cadue-Blackwood. Cadue-Blackwood has said she would not support closing any schools, but she could not be reached for further comment Friday. She was also the sole vote against closing Kennedy Elementary to grades K-5 in April 2021. (Emerson and Nussbaum had not yet been elected at that time.) 

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These board members indicated that they were undecided or would not yet share how they would vote:

• Board President Erica Hill. “I will not announce how I will vote prior to hearing all of the proposals.”

• Board Vice President Shannon Kimball. “I will not be announcing how I am going to vote on the work that is still in progress or draft proposals, which haven’t even been presented to the board yet.”

• Kelly Jones. “The board and community haven’t seen comprehensive recommendations and proposals for getting to a balanced budget. So while l lean in a direction, out of due diligence, I can’t commit to a vote ahead of the board meeting.” She said the most important factors she’s considering when looking at school closures are as follows: “1) Will students transitioning to a new building and students in the receiving building have a similar or better experience in the subsequent year(s)? Or, put another way, is there evidence that a school closure may result in improved educational experiences for current and future students? 2) Will the efficiencies gained positively benefit teacher and staff recruitment and retention? 3) How will consolidating buildings affect students’ communities surrounding the building closed?”

Board member Paula Smith did not respond to the Times’ requests for comment by publication time.

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Emma Bascom (she/her), reporter, can be reached at ebascom (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here.

Mackenzie Clark (she/her), reporter/founder of The Lawrence Times, can be reached at mclark (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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