Save Our Schools 497: Lawrence school district should move forward with a comprehensive plan (Column)

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Note: The Lawrence Times is offering some space for area organizations and organizers to express their views, provide updates and attempt to reach other folks who might share their mission. This post is contributed content (i.e., not produced by the Times staff). See more in our Community Voices section, or see how to submit your own piece.

July 12 marked six months since the Lawrence school district proposed closing five Title I elementary schools and consolidating the highest risk middle schools into a single school — a single school that would have housed 300 more students than the other middle schools in Lawrence. 

From the beginning, the central goal of Save Our Schools 497 has been to highlight to the community and school board that the district’s timeline and process was irresponsible given the gravity of the proposed changes. 

Save Our Schools 497 is aware of the ongoing budget challenges faced by the district, and — based on comments during school closure discussions in spring 2022 — we know the possibility of school closures remain on the table heading into this academic year.

Prior to any further discussion about school closures, we call on the school board to create a procedure for best practices when considering school closures and to adopt this procedure moving forward. To best serve the community this procedure must be transparent, have a responsible time frame, include all stakeholders, be thoroughly vetted for equity, and include a comprehensive boundary analysis. 

Adopting this strategy will ensure the process is inclusive, well-considered and research-driven. If this board is sincere about making decisions that are in the best interest of our entire community, the time for action is now. USD 497 owes it to our community to take this step.

If due process is given and school closures are found to be the only course of action, this procedure must include best practices and an appropriate time frame to fully integrate school students, teachers, staff and families for a successful beginning together. 

Save Our Schools believes it is crucial to incorporate line items for all financial costs associated with the closures, including, but not limited to: providing transportation, operation and maintenance costs of a closed building, any additional positions required to support student academics, social-emotional health of support teachers and staff, the cost of building sales and concrete plans regarding the future of empty buildings. 

Regardless of where a person stands on the current challenges facing Lawrence schools, we hope we can all agree on the need for true long-term planning, open and transparent dialogue with the community and staff, and utilizing data and best practices to address decreasing enrollment. 

Resources on best practices for approaching school closures are included below. 

As we mark the six-month anniversary of the founding of the Save Our Schools 497 organization, it is important to stress that Save Our Schools was never about merely “saving buildings.” The organization is about protecting students, staff, families and communities from rushed and inequitable decisions. We are about bringing all stakeholders to the table, taking adequate time for major decisions, pushing for transparent and accurate numbers, and above all, centering those most affected. Those principles remain central to our organization. 

It is important to clarify what appears to be a perception in the community that program cuts and classroom threshold changes that resulted in multigrade and maxed out classrooms are the direct result of keeping all schools open. However, from day one of the discussion about budget cuts, program cuts, inadequate raises, and multigrade, maxed-out classrooms were included in the district’s proposals. These cuts were on the table even with school closures in the picture. 

Additional information and research:

To help in the creation of a school closure process, we have gathered examples and research. 

When considering school closures, applicable research must also be included. 

Cost savings:

The Pew Charitable Trusts completed a study of school closings across six urban school districts (including Kansas City, Missouri) in 2011, which found that the money saved by closing schools, in the short term, was relatively small — and a later follow-up study (2013) delved into the difficulties of repurposing buildings. In short, the conclusion was that school closure is not an effective strategy for long-term budget concerns.

Harm to students:

The University of Chicago’s Consortium on School Research published three studies regarding school closings. The study includes quantitative and qualitative data regarding student outcomes and explains the different ways closings affect students and the school community. 

Community input:

Community input is vital as the effects of school closures extend far beyond members of the school. Dr. Sally Nuamah has specifically researched the negative impact of excluding community voice in district restructuring plans. 

BPEC proposal, Jan. 19, 2022

— Save Our Schools 497 is a group that supports Lawrence neighborhood schools.

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