Update, Tuesday, Feb. 28: Lawrence school board votes to hold hearings on closing 2 schools and to cut staff — click here to read
Post last updated at 10:31 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 26:
The Lawrence Public Schools superintendent on Friday released his recommendation to close three elementary schools and repurpose a middle school. We’re looking to answer your questions as we hear them, so this article might be updated to include more information.
The Lawrence school board on Monday (Feb. 27) will consider whether to hold public hearings — that’s the next step toward closing school buildings.
Q: When was the last time the district closed a school?
Although school closures were discussed around this time last year, board members came to a consensus not to close any schools ahead of the 2022-23 school year. (Read about how board members were leaning ahead of that decision in this article.)
Kennedy Elementary, 1605 Davis Road in eastern Lawrence, was closed to grades K-5 to be repurposed as an early childhood center beginning with the 2021-22 school year. About 170 K-5 students were expected to transfer to Cordley, New York or Prairie Park, and ultimately, 145 did. Read more about how the Kennedy transition went in this article from December 2021.
Prior to that, Wakarusa Valley Elementary south of town near Clinton Lake was the last closure, in 2011; a task force at the time recommended that the district start conversations about consolidating Cordley, Hillcrest, Kennedy, New York, Pinckney and Sunset Hill elementaries.
Here’s a timeline covering the past 20 years (note — the Times launched in March 2021, so we don’t have extensive archives going back that far):
Q: Which schools might now face closures, and why?
A: Superintendent Anthony Lewis, in letters sent out Friday, said that he intends to recommend the school board close Pinckney, Woodlawn and Broken Arrow elementary schools, and to repurpose Liberty Memorial Central Middle School “as a focused school with a magnet theme or themes in 2024-2025.”
The three elementary schools were among the five that scored lowest on a building assessment conducted by consultants, and LMCMS was the lowest scoring of the four middle schools. All were part of closure scenarios the district considered last year.
Lewis further wrote in a letter to district families, “The current utilization of our elementary facilities is 76%, meaning we have about 1,351 available elementary seats. Middle school utilization is 72% or 843 available seats. Projections indicate our enrollment will drop by 300 students by 2027-2028. Lower enrollment means less funding. The district simply cannot afford to continue to operate this inefficiently.”
The school board members may choose to hold public hearings on closing any, all or none of these buildings; they may also vote to hold hearings on any other buildings to consider for closure.
Here’s some background and info from the agenda materials about the schools:
• Pinckney, at Sixth and Mississippi streets, is operating at about 64% student capacity, and that is not expected to improve. (Current enrollment is 207; it has room for 323 students.) Its current building opened in 1931. For potential alternate uses, the agenda suggests “East Heights programs – C-Tran, Project Search, Therapeutic Classroom, Suspension Alternative Program”.
• Woodlawn, at 508 Elm St., is the last traditional school in North Lawrence. The building opened in 1924. It is operating at 72% capacity, and that is projected to drop to 61% in the next five years. (Current enrollment is 216; capacity is 300.) It scored lowest on the building assessment, and “to bring the building up to 80% new condition would cost $2,280,000,” according to the agenda. Potential other uses are “TBD.”
• Broken Arrow, at 27th and Louisiana streets, shares a campus with Billy Mills Middle School. The building opened in 1968, the same year as Deerfield. It’s operating at about 79% capacity (268 students currently enrolled; capacity of 338). Its potential alternative use, according to the agenda, is “Extends space for Billy Mills Middle School and supports potential innovations with how we serve sixth graders.”
• Liberty Memorial Central Middle School, at 1400 Massachusetts St., is operating at about 66% capacity (411 currently enrolled; capacity of 625), and that is expected to increase slightly, to 69%, in the next five years. It would cost $2.4 million to bring the building up to 80% new condition. The district does not seem to have decided exactly what that focus would be if LMCMS is repurposed as a magnet school, but agenda materials suggest it could be fine arts, STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics), dual-language or “innovations.”
Q: How much money would those closures save?
A: A breakdown of the anticipated cost savings is not included with the agenda materials, and numbers from the district last year showed that closing four elementary schools would save an estimated $2.03 million.
However, the district says repurposing LMCMS would save $325,000; each elementary school closure is expected to save between $300,000 and $400,000. So a low total estimate would be $1.225 million, and a high total estimate would be $1.525 million.
Q: Didn’t the district just renovate …
A: Yes. Lawrence voters approved bond issues in 2013 and 2017, totaling $179.5 million, to fund renovations at all school buildings, including Pinckney ($6.85 million), Woodlawn ($2.55 million) and Broken Arrow ($1.68 million).
Renovation budgets for the three schools now recommended for closure totaled almost $11.1 million. As part of the district’s rationale regarding the recommendation to close Broken Arrow, agenda materials state that it received the least bond issue improvements. Renovations budgeted for LMCMS, between the two bond issues, totaled about $5.36 million.
Here are the bond issue budgets as voters approved them; see more details in the timeline above:2013-and-2017-bond-issue-budgets
Q: Where are these schools in relation to the ones nearest them?
A: Here’s a map:
Click here to open the map in a new window.
Q: If schools close, will the district provide transportation to affected students?
A: Maybe, but not necessarily. If a student’s school is 2.5 miles or more from their home, the state reimburses the district for transportation costs. Students who live 2.5 miles or more from their new schools “would automatically qualify for transportation,” according to materials in the board meeting agenda.
“When possible, we grant ‘space available’ transportation for students who do not qualify, but live in an area where there is a bus with room available going to their school,” according to the agenda.
And students who have Individualized Educational Plans (IEPs) can qualify for bus service regardless of where they live.
Not all schools have bus riders — according to information the district shared at the beginning of this school year, there were no buses serving Cordley, Deerfield, Hillcrest, New York, Schwegler, or Sunset Hill elementaries, for example.
It is possible that, with boundary shifts, students attending any school may end up in a different attendance area next year. Boundary Advisory Committee members last week indicated that regardless of whether, or how many, schools the board decides to close, the BAC should still look at boundaries comprehensively.
Q: When will parents know which schools their kids will attend next year?
A: So far, that’s not entirely clear.
Under state law, the district must publish notices of public hearings at least 10 days in advance of the hearing, and it “shall include the reasons for the proposed closing, the name of any affected building and the name of any school building to which the involved pupils shall be reassigned.” The law does not indicate that the district must determine specifically where each individual student will attend school the following year prior to the board voting to close a building, however.
District policy states that “When the closing of a school has been approved, the administration shall use reasonable means to inform parents of students affected by the closing about their new school assignment.”
A draft timeline published in the meeting agenda on Friday suggested March 28 and 29 for public hearing dates, with the school board to make a final decision on closures on April 10. However, updated agenda materials removed the dates from that timeline and instead says dates are “TBD.”
The policy also states that “Administrative planning for reassignment of students and staff members, disposition of equipment and furniture, etc., shall be completed when possible prior to the end of the school year.”
Lewis shared with LMCMS families some slightly more specific information in the event that the school is repurposed: “I will recommend that current sixth and seventh graders be given the choice to remain at LMCMS next year or attend their newly assigned middle school (Billy Mills, Southwest, or West). In addition, I will recommend that rising sixth graders in the LMCMS boundary area attend their newly assigned middle school (Billy Mills, Southwest, or West) in the fall.”
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Q: What other budget cuts will the board consider?
A: The recommendation the board will consider Monday includes cutting about 50 full-time staff members at the middle and high school levels. That would save an estimated $3.25 million, according to the agenda materials. That recommendation is a spinoff of one the Futures Planning Committee members considered and voted 17-16 in favor, branded as increasing maximum class sizes.
FPC members were not told which specific schools might be closed ahead of their votes in favor of closing one (84%) or two (76%) elementary schools. The committee did not vote on closing a third elementary school. (Read more about the committee in the articles at this link.)
Altogether, the staff cuts and school closures would save between $4.5 and $4.8 million, according to the agenda. The district has a goal of saving $9 million in order to achieve competitive wages for district staff, a big financial priority heading into the next school year and future years to come.
The board already approved a substantial cut on Jan. 23: switching to iPads for high school students, rather than MacBooks. The switch is anticipated to save the district almost $4 million over three years.
The agenda materials include other possible budget cuts:
• Subject to negotiation: Two are dependent on negotiations with the teachers union, the Lawrence Education Association. One is to cut middle school teachers’ second plan time. That would save an estimated $1.3 million, according to the agenda. The other, which would save an estimated $1.26 million, is for the district to stop its contributions to employees’ 403(b) retirement accounts. That cut would have a minimal impact to students, according to the agenda materials, but it could worsen the district’s issues with staff recruitment and retention.
• Four-day weeks for students: The school board on Feb. 13 approved a traditional five-day calendar for the 2023-24 school year. Lewis wrote in a letter to school families that “I also recommend our community collaborate on plans to begin using renewable energy and transition to a 4-day student week/5-day staff week school calendar to support the success and well-being of staff and students.”
• Investigating solar power and/or renewable energy: Unknown potential savings.
• Administration? Lewis told the board members at their special meeting on Feb. 21 that he would not recommend cutting one district administrative position, which would save an estimate of about $128,000. No administrative cuts are included in the proposal the board will consider Monday. A study in 2022 found that the district was central administrator-heavy compared to most other large districts in Kansas. However, the board approved about $577,000 in administrative cuts last year, or about 6.5 positions, bringing the district closer to the average ratio of central administrators to students.
Q: When and where is the board meeting?
A: The Lawrence school board will convene at 6 p.m. Monday, Feb. 27 at district offices, 110 McDonald Drive. This is a regular meeting that will be open for public comment. The full meeting agenda is posted online at this link.
Meetings are also livestreamed on the district’s YouTube channel and broadcast on Midco channel 26. To give public comment virtually during the board meeting, email PublicComment@usd497.org by 6 p.m. on the day of the meeting (according to the board website, though the district’s social media posts say by 5 p.m.) to sign up to participate by Webex video/phone conferencing.
The board is voting Monday on whether to move forward with public hearings. Board members will not make any final decisions on whether to close buildings until after public hearings can be held; however, the board does not have to conduct public hearings before deciding whether to repurpose a building.
If you can’t make it to the meeting but want to make your voice heard, you can still contact board members. Find their contact information at this link or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Have other questions? Email us at hello (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com and we’ll do our best to find the answers.
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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.