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‘Caught off guard’: Lawrence community members share their concerns about school closure proposals

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Members of the Save Our Schools 497 group have hosted two community meetings in recent weeks, with more than 50 people showing up to organize and show their support of Lawrence neighborhood schools that could face closures. 

They’re also planning two rallies: a Celebrate Our Schools gathering at 2:30 p.m. this Saturday at South Park, and a rally at 5 p.m. Monday, Feb. 14, before the 6 p.m. Lawrence school board meeting. 

But these efforts, though perhaps the most visible, are just the top layer of organizers’ work. The enthusiasm shown in these demonstrations is a veneer on top of deep concerns for many families. 

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The Lawrence school board is considering cost-cutting proposals — most recently boiled down by district administrators to three packaged options — to help fill a multimillion-dollar shortfall in the budget. School closures remain on the table in two of the options, and significant reductions to staffing and programs are included in all scenarios.

Alicia Erickson, a founder of Save Our Schools 497, said the group formed Jan. 12 — the same day school closure proposals were presented for the first time — just a month ago.

“When we heard the proposals for school closings, groups of parents at all the schools started talking and trying to figure out what we could do. We realized that we needed to unite and fight to keep all schools open,” Erickson said. “From there, representatives from each neighborhood came together and we’ve been working every second we can since then.”

Other organizations and dedicated community members have also come together, such as Tatyana Younger, a PAL-CWA union leader and paraeducator for USD 497. Younger also works with the Lawrence Education Justice Collective — a group of young people, students, parents, caregivers, teachers, staff and community members organizing to “make Black Lives Matter in our schools,” according to the collective’s Facebook page

Members of the LEJC saw what Save Our Schools was doing and then helped “give them more spaces to amplify their message,” Younger said.

Save Our Schools 497 has four main concerns regarding the school closures: the timeline in which these decisions are being made, equity, that not all cost-saving measures have been explored, and that closing schools will “erode community support” in Lawrence Public Schools. 

Activists with Lawrence Education Justice Collective gather at the ECM building to organize efforts to keep Lawrence schools open amid a district budget shortfall, Jan. 20, 2022. (Contributed Photo)

Equity

All four of the elementary schools that could face closures under the current proposals — Broken Arrow, New York, Pinckney, and Woodlawn — are Title I schools, according to a January presentation from Kathy Johnson, who recently retired as executive director of finance for the district.

Title I schools qualify for extra funding to help minimize disparities in math and reading. Students from families with low incomes must make up at least 40% of the school in order to qualify for Title I funding.

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As a union leader and member of the LEJC, Younger has been fighting for equity in Lawrence throughout her career — but her immersion in the community began well before that.

Tatyana Younger

Younger grew up in Lawrence. She attended Schwegler Elementary, Billy Mills (then called South) Middle School, and then Lawrence High School. It wasn’t always easy to live here, she said, and economic factors make it hard for some families to want to stay. But that doesn’t mean it’s not home. 

Closures on the east side of town, she said, will mean that “the part of town that means a lot to me and my friends is going to lose a lot of potential for family building.” She said she knows a family that needs to consider moving if one of the schools is closed.

She also has other concerns, though, including for students who currently attend Liberty Memorial Central Middle School, which could be repurposed as a large elementary school.

“There are so many things that don’t get mentioned along the lines of we’re noticing that Central’s where a lot of Black and Brown students go to middle school, in a town where they already feel othered, and so if that closes, what cultures are we now trying to displace and assimilate into spaces that might not feel as welcoming?” Younger said.

She reflected on her own experience: “I would not necessarily have wanted to go to Free State (High School) if I had the option.” 

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For school board member Carole Cadue-Blackwood, who said she is not for school closures of any kind, the proposals and inequities are another chapter in a long history of Indigenous peoples’ struggles with government.

“For me, it goes back to that bumper sticker I sometimes see at powwows: ‘Sure, you can trust the government, ask an Indian,’” she said. “We know that all too well.”

Carole Cadue-Blackwood

Cadue-Blackwood, an enrolled member of the Kickapoo Tribe of Kansas, described her tribe’s history and forcible removal from the Lake Erie area to Kansas. She discussed how her grandfather taught her about Native American history before kindergarten because it would not be taught in school. 

She mentioned the effects that closures would have on students from rural areas — “a much longer commute” — and overall mental health impacts, especially for students who have “already been shuffled around once” when the school board voted to close Wakarusa Valley Elementary in 2011. She knows this “all too well,” she said, because her daughters were some of those students who dealt with the shuffle a decade ago.

“My daughters still get emotional every time we pass the school,” she said. 

“… I’m also a mental health provider. I know what I’m talking about. I’m a licensed social worker. I do work with clients, and I do know that this may have impacts on mental health if we have to close schools,” she continued.

The district’s tool to mitigate inequities in cost-cutting proposals was introduced at the Budget and Program Evaluation Committee’s equity impact analysis meeting on Wednesday. Invited members from district committees were divided into small groups to discuss one of three potential packages of options. They then used the district’s equity analysis tool, a one-page rubric, to provide feedback as to what extent each proposal provides or ensures access, representation, meaningful participation and high outcomes. The district has not yet shared the results of the analysis, and on Thursday evening announced that data shared about the budget options was inaccurate.

Though Younger believes that equity analysis meetings and impact tools are a step in the right direction, she said she struggles with a lot of the conversations on equity.

“I don’t think that it gets to the root of the issue: that schools in America have been built inequitable, and you can’t put a tool on something so broken and expect it to be fixed,” she said. 

“… For me, these equity tools, I think that they are helpful stepping stones to get to where we want to be, but because they’re inherently built to just continue the structure … I think it’s always going to end up falling flat and still harming people,” she continued.

The district’s director of data and technology, Zach Conrad, is going to compile the information collected during the equity analysis impact meeting to include in the executive summary that will be given to the school board ahead of Monday’s meeting. Community members are also able to provide feedback on the options via a ThoughtExchange survey.

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Timeline

The school closure proposals were first presented at the Jan. 12 Boundary Advisory Committee meeting. During the next school board meeting, on Jan. 24, roughly 30 people spoke to the board, advocating to keep schools open. 

At a special meeting on Feb. 21, school board members must decide if they wish to hold public hearings on any possible school closures. If so, those hearings will occur on or around March 21-23. The board would have to make final decisions on whether to close any schools by mid-April — just three months after the closures were first proposed. 

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This tight timeline for these decisions is a big part of why members of the community have gotten so involved, Erickson said. 

Alicia Erickson

“They’ve (school board members) already shown that they really don’t want to hear from the public, whether they are saying they do or not,” Erickson said. 

She said some people have been putting in 14-hour days and taking time off work to try to dig in and become experts on budgeting.

“It just feels like, with this timeline, the intention is to make sure that we’re never part of the conversation,” she continued. 

Lawrence school board Vice President Shannon Kimball said in April 2021 that the district needed to maximize existing infrastructure, and that it had “some really heavy budget issues that we’re gonna to have to deal with.” But the extent of those issues has still come as a surprise to many.

Younger said that, regardless of the outcome, it is “devastating that it took us getting to this point and having three months of warning to make all of these choices.” 

“I wish this could have been something that, a year ago, was brought up,” she continued. “Where, at a school board meeting, they said, ‘Hey, if we can’t find money soon, school closures will be on the table in a year.’ That would have been a helpful warning about how bad this all was. And instead, I know a lot of people feel caught off guard.” 

Artwork in the window at Pinckney Elementary calls to “Save our schools – we depend on them.” (August Rudisell/Contributed Photo)

Transparency

Many community members have questioned the district’s transparency regarding closures.

School board member Kay Emerson said during an interview in late January that she had “serious, serious doubts” on this timeline creating a trusted process.

Kay Emerson

Younger said she thinks that “there is something to be said for this idea that not all information should be for everyone because information can get misconstrued.”

She does not think the lack of transparency is intentional or malicious, but rather what happens when “years of not building trust in communities finally comes to a head.” 

“Collaboration should have been happening before we got to this point, so that people could have been on board to get to this point. And now we’re seeing the effects of what happens when we’ve been disconnected for too long.” 

Younger also said that sometimes there is an idea that people don’t want to see “all the nitty gritty details” — they only need to see the big picture and go from there.

“I think that sometimes our school district can fall into that pattern of thinking that they’re being transparent by showing the answer rather than showing the equation that got us there,” Younger said. 

Others aren’t as optimistic. The cancellation of the Feb. 2 Boundary Advisory Committee meeting especially left a sour taste in Erickson’s mouth.

“I always like to think the best of people and the best intentions and that sometimes things get misconstrued, but honestly, the way this entire thing has been handled is really, really making that hard,” Erickson said. 

At the most recent BAC meeting, on Jan. 26, many committee members expressed interest in taking closure “Scenario 1” — the one that would close four elementary schools and repurpose LMCMS as a large elementary school — off the table. Conrad said he would send a Google Form out to committee members so that they could take a vote before the next meeting. 

Then the meeting was canceled. 

“Regardless of why they decided to cancel to the meeting, the perception for the public is that, ‘Oh, we saw that this option might be taken off the table, and we’re not gonna allow it to be taken off the table, so we’re just locking everything down,’ and it is so disheartening,” Erickson said.  

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Lawrence Public Schools spokesperson Julie Boyle said at the time that the cancellation was “so staff could prepare for the Equity Impact Analysis of budget-saving proposals.” 

“If you’re using this equity tool as a reason not to hold those meetings, then it already feels like you’re trying to manipulate an equity tool against the schools and against the people,” Erickson said. “It feels like you’re using the term equity in a really inequitable way to manipulate the situation.” 

“And if that’s not the case, if it’s truly that there’s not enough time to get an equity tool out there and then to have these meetings, then that’s the answer right there: There’s not enough time. There’s no reason to proceed with school closures this year if there’s not enough time to do it correctly.”

However the cuts are to be made, the district is legally required to balance its budget before the beginning of the fiscal year on July 1.

Transportation

Students living within 2.5 miles of their school do not receive busing from the district unless they become eligible through other services like special education or English to Speakers of Other Languages. With the proposed school closings, many students would have to walk further to their schools every day.

The question of students’ safety on these new routes has sparked “Walk in Their Shoes” events, in which parents, teachers and students took to some example routes last week to show the school board what school closings would mean for their children. A video posted to the Save Lawrence Neighborhood Schools Facebook page shows students crossing busy intersections and areas without crosswalks.

Tricia Masenthin/The Lawrence Times Families walk south down Ousdahl Road from Schwegler Elementary to Broken Arrow Elementary on Jan. 31, 2022 in support of the Save Our Schools movement.

This is especially scary to Cadue-Blackwood, who lost one of her best friends as a second grader at Sunset Hill Elementary. Her friend was hit by a car at Eighth and Kasold while he was walking home from school.

“The idea of kids crossing dangerous intersections — it scares me as a parent and as a resident, and then I still have all this childhood trauma,” she said. 

She referred to the board’s decision in April 2021 to close Kennedy Elementary School to grades K-5, displacing those students between New York, Cordley and Prairie Park elementaries. She was the sole vote against the plan. 

“When Kennedy closed and when we were in those meetings, I just had all these visions of kids trying to dart across 23rd and Harper or 23rd and Haskell. I had all these scenarios in my head, like sunlight hitting these drivers’ eyes, or if they’re distracted and some kid’s trying to cross the street,” she said. 

Woodlawn Elementary, one of the proposed closures, is the district’s only elementary school north of the Kansas River. Students would have to walk across the river’s bridge on their commute each day.

This is another element that particularly concerns Cadue-Blackwood: “I barely cross that bridge without getting dizzy.”

The district has looked into adding buses for students who will have long walks to school. During the Jan. 26 Boundary Advisory Committee meeting, Eric Ahlander, the transportation director for First Student, presented some information about what the proposed scenarios may look like with additional busing routes.

Scenario 1 would add about 13 additional buses into the mix, according to Ahlander’s estimations. 

“Just because you can do it doesn’t mean we can move them all over town quickly and easily,” Ahlander said during the meeting. 

The estimates presented during that meeting were not finalized at that time, and costs of any additional routes were still unclear during the last public discussion of the issue. 

“What has been said is ‘Yes, we see that there are hazards, we will consider busing,’ but there’s no public commitment that they will provide busing,” Erickson said.

Administrators said before the closure of Kennedy that some transportation options could be possible for those students, such as vans to transport some students who changed schools. None of those options have come to fruition. 

Lawrence community members rally to “Save Our Schools 497” outside Lawrence school district offices on Jan. 24, 2022. (August Rudisell/Contributed Photo)

School board

Board members Emerson, Cadue-Blackwood and Andrew Nussbaum all said that, as the situation stood at the end of January, they would vote no on school closure proposals. 

“I want to also be responsive to what the community is telling me. The community is loudly, loudly telling me — and us — no,” Emerson said at the time. 

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“I stand solidly that I am not for school closures of any kind. I know that it’s going to be at a great sacrifice — we may potentially have to cut some programs — but, to me, it’s just temporary until we can get the numbers back up,” Cadue-Blackwood said last week. “I know that there’s going to be a lot of belt tightening, but I think that the people of Lawrence are resilient, and I think that some of the parents are willing to make those sacrifices to save our schools.”

It’s unclear what the remaining four board members will do, but one of them will likely cast the deciding vote. Board President Erica Hill, Kimball and board member Kelly Jones recently indicated that they were undecided or would not yet share how they would vote. Board member Paula Smith could not be reached for comment. 

Moving forward 

Superintendent Anthony Lewis said Wednesday that Feb. 21 is the “drop dead date” for board members to vote on whether they want to publish resolutions to give the district the authority to hold public hearings on any school closures.

“There are no easy answers. This is not how I envisioned year four of my superintendency going. … However, we are at this point,” Lewis said. “It took us a while to get to this point, and it’s going to take us a while to get out of it, but I do believe that, together, we can come up with a solution that will benefit this district for years to come.”

“… Superintendents come and go. I’m not going anywhere, but superintendents come and go. The community will always be here. I understand that and I respect that,” he continued. “I know it seems like we’re doing this to the community, but we want to do it with the community.”

Regardless of what happens in the coming months, Younger is hopeful for continued community support.

“I hope that, if schools don’t close, that we can help support our school system in finding that money and getting further. If the schools do close, I hope that we can find ways to protect the most marginalized folks amongst us … because this is going to be a hard transition no matter what happens next,” she said. 

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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.

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