Union reps, community members voice concerns about staff cuts and school closures ahead of Lawrence school board vote

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Lawrence community members showed up in big numbers to the school board meeting Monday evening, most opposing a budget recommendation to close neighborhood schools. The board heard almost two hours of public comment.

At the conclusion of a meeting that lasted more than six hours, Lawrence school board members voted 6-1 to hold public hearings to consider closing Broken Arrow and Pinckney elementary schools, but not Woodlawn, as proposed

All were in favor of a hearing on closing Pinckney, except Carole Cadue-Blackwood. All voted in favor of a hearing on Broken Arrow, except board member Kay Emerson. The motion to hold a hearing on closing Woodlawn failed 4-3, with Cadue-Blackwood, Emerson and board members Kelly Jones and GR Gordon-Ross voting no.

Board members also voted to repurpose Liberty Memorial Central Middle School as a magnet school, but with the timeline to be pushed back to allow the school to operate normally next year and plan for changes the following year.

Thirty-four people spoke during the public comment section of the meeting, waiting until four or five hours into the meeting to share their thoughts on the budget recommendations with the board. Many were parents of elementary students in the district as well as some students, staff, teachers and community members. The overwhelming majority of commenters opposed closing schools.

Chloe Anderson/Lawrence Times Community members pack the board room Monday night.

‘We have been getting crumbs’

Commenters also spoke to recruitment and retention of district staff. Some said they supported the district’s top priority of achieving pay increases for certified and classified staff — the main goal of the board’s push to save $9 million in the budget — but felt there were better ways to get there than the recommendations in the current proposal.

Administrators’ recommendation included cutting approximately 50 full-time staff members at the middle and high school levels. Board members voted 6-1 in favor of those cuts, with Past President Erica Hill the sole vote against them. Hill said she struggled with the proposal to cut staff if it meant increasing class sizes in turn.

Alyssa Floro, who’s an eighth grade science teacher at Southwest Middle School and a member of the teachers union, the Lawrence Education Association, said during public comment that consolidating schools and cutting staff will only increase the workload for teachers. Larger class sizes would also limit the ability of students to be successful in the classroom, she said.

“Increasing our workload and paying us more money isn’t a raise — it’s paying us for the additional hours we would be spending doing our job,” Floro said during the meeting. “Many of this district’s teachers are already at their limit. I ask that you don’t increase our workloads until we reach our breaking point. I urge you to have this administration bring a proposal to you that allows you to increase teacher pay, but not at the expense of our scholars or by increasing teacher workload.”

Interim LEA President Emerson Hoffzales said the union has been put in an unfair position. On one hand, their goal is to advocate for teachers and negotiate better pay, but with the current recommendations, that could mean closing schools and reducing staff, they explained.

“How can you make me realign my priorities in order to get me raises that we deserve?” Hoffzales said during the meeting. “We’ve been asking for years to increase staff wages — years … We have nothing left to give. We have been getting crumbs.”

Hoffzales also said they were disturbed that the board was discussing items that are meant for negotiation, one being to cut middle school teachers’ second plan time, which would save an estimated $1.3 million. The other is to cease the district’s contributions to its employees’ 403(b) retirement accounts, which would save an estimated $1.26 million but could worsen the district’s issues with staff recruitment and retention.

“LEA supports maintaining the terms of our agreement,” Hoffzales said. “By you all even just entertaining negotiated items, no, not OK. They’re in there for a reason.”

Ashley Eicholtz, executive vice president of the district’s certified staff union, PAL-CWA, read a statement on behalf of the union’s executive board. Eicholtz said currently, 320 of the district’s hourly employees make between $9.70 and $14 per hour, while a living wage for a single adult with no children in Douglas County has been deemed as $16.17 per hour by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s living wage calculator.

“Some of our most dedicated employees earn less than $14 per hour after 20 plus years of service to our district,” Eicholtz said during the meeting. “We are here to ask you to keep a promise you made to us two years ago to pay all our staff a living wage … Suppose the goal is to recruit and retain valuable employees in our school district. In that case, it is essential that we pay a living wage.”

Chloe Anderson/Lawrence Times

‘That was their safe place’

Many parents shared their families’ connections to their neighborhood schools, and support that has gone well beyond classroom walls. 

Lisa Potter, Save Our Schools 497 supporter and parent of three students at Broken Arrow, shared with the board the traumatic aftermath of losing her house and two family cats during a fire in October. She said the saving grace for her kids was their school.

“My kids went back to school two days after the fire, and you know why? They wanted to — that was their safe place,” Potter said. “They had lost their house and their two cats, but they had their school, and now, you’re proposing to close it. And my kids aren’t the only ones struggling with basic needs at Broken Arrow and at Pinckney and at Woodlawn and at the middle school (LMCMS).”

All four schools are located east of Iowa Street, which historically has included more students who are of lower socioeconomic status (SES) and other marginalized identities.

Anne Costello, SOS 497 supporter and parent of two students at an elementary school that’s not facing possible closure this year, served on the Futures Planning Committee and said the equity analysis of budget cuts did not serve its purpose well.

“We on the committee were told that equity would be wrapped around the entire process, yet how can this be true when the only schools up for closure are on the east side?” Costello said during the meeting. “I understand our schools on the west side are physically larger than those on the east, but the proposed closures will have an entire quadrant in the city without an elementary school, unless you want your child to attend the (New York) Montesssori school.”

New York Elementary is slowly phasing in Montessori classrooms, with three classrooms for kids ages 3-6 currently in place. The district’s plan, announced last spring, was to begin a phased approach, adding grades 1-3 and 4-6 “in the future.”

Keith Williams, whose daughter attends Woodlawn, said he values keeping neighborhood schools open because of the life impact his teachers had on him and the impact he now sees teachers having on his kids. He mentioned that because of the Lawrence school district’s current state, his family is considering transferring one of their children to the Eudora school district once open enrollment is available next year.

“Teachers saved my life. My daughter loves her teacher. My daughter loves her school. She loves the people that she’s around. Now she has to move?” Williams said, prior to the board’s vote.

Suzie Johannes, who served on the Futures Planning Committee, said the committee’s ideas and discussions did not ultimately transfer to administrators’ recommendation. Johannes is the parent of a Woodlawn student.

“If you believe the final proposal is the committee’s voice, those recommendations have changed in the past week, and half are pending,” Johannes said during the meeting. 

“For example, the committee only talked about the closure of two elementary schools, yet today there’s a proposal of three, which I believe would increase the capacity of the remaining schools to 91%. Staff were told the third was added Thursday. How can two become three in the past few days, especially after concerns last week that the number of schools being sought for closure is too much, in too short of time and creates too severe of a mental toll on our students, teachers, staff and families?”

Chloe Anderson/Lawrence Times

Kaelyn McCall, a parent of two Broken Arrow students, spoke against school closures during Monday’s meeting.

“There is no actual detailed plan here, and I do not believe what you’re being presented benefits students, especially those at Broken Arrow,” she said.

Chloe Anderson/Lawrence Times

Belinda Hunt spoke as a community member and former educator.

“Closing neighborhood schools tarnishes that image that this community cares about the families in these neighborhoods, and what they contribute to the neighborhoods,” she said.

Board member concerns

Board President Shannon Kimball said after public comment and before the board’s vote that she was “frustrated” because she felt administrators’ work had gone unappreciated.

“I’m going to leave here tonight, regardless of how this vote turns out, and I’m going to really wonder whether Lawrence Public Schools has the community support that it needs to make the kind of hard decisions that have to be made, if we mean what we say about wanting to pay our teachers and our staff better,” Kimball said.

Chloe Anderson/Lawrence Times School board President Shannon Kimball, left, speaks as Vice President Paula Vann and board Past President Erica Hill listen during the board’s Feb. 27, 2023 meeting.

The board on Monday approved the repurposing of LMCMS with the caveat that next year it will remain open for all students while in-depth planning occurs for changes during the 2024-25 year.

If all LMCMS students were disseminated into Billy Mills, West and Southwest, middle schools would be at around 90% capacity, Chief Academic Officer Patrick Kelly said. The district’s standard of efficient operation is 85% capacity. Jones asked Kelly to confirm that there would be no space to move all sixth, seventh and eighth graders from LMCMS to the other three schools, to which Kelly responded he was “less confident in that model.”

Board members, specifically Hill and Cadue-Blackwood, as well as public commenters voiced concerns for students in North Lawrence who would have to walk over the Kansas River bridge, with the dangers of water beneath them and a highway next to them, to get to and from their new schools.

Now that the board has approved public hearings for two elementary school closures, the district’s next steps will start this week. 

The Boundary Advisory Committee will meet from 5:30 to 7 p.m. Wednesday (March 1) at the district’s Facilities and Operations Office, 711 E. 23rd St., Building A. The committee will discuss new boundary proposals for spreading Broken Arrow and Pinckney students to other nearby schools with room to grow. The meeting is open for the public to attend but not participate, and it will not be livestreamed.

It is possible that, with boundary shifts, students attending any school may end up in a different attendance area next year. BAC 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. 

By law, notices of public hearings “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.” That notice must be published for two consecutive weeks, and at least 10 days — but not more than 20 days — prior to a final board vote on the school closings.

Larry Englebrick, interim chief operations officer, said during Monday’s meeting that the district does not currently have any idea where kids from schools that close would transfer, and that he and RSP & Associates will work with the BAC this week on that. Any new boundaries will be made available for the public hearings, which are open to public participation. 

The board is scheduled to vote on a final budget package during its March 27 meeting, Superintendent Anthony Lewis confirmed during Monday’s meeting.

Read more from the meeting at this link. Read about the community rally before the meeting at this link

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Note: An incorrect pronoun in this article has been corrected.

Maya Hodison (she/her), equity reporter, can be reached at mhodison (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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