A school is more than just a building, said parents, students and other community members Saturday at a public hearing on the possible closure of Broken Arrow Elementary.
Instead, they said, it’s part of a community.
The emotional hearing featured more than 20 speakers, mostly parents, and more than 100 total community members in attendance. They advocated on behalf of Broken Arrow in the face of an upcoming vote on the possible closure of the school.
“We feel our children’s lives are being played with in a financial chess game,” said Kristy Wempe Bellinger, a Broken Arrow parent.
The district held the public hearing in line with a state statute that requires one prior to any school closures. The board will vote on the closure of the school and Pinckney Elementary at Monday’s board meeting. That meeting will also include an opportunity for public comment.
Community members and the advocacy group Save Our Schools 497 also held a rally outside ahead of the hearing.
The decision to possibly close the school is part of recommendations from district administration to make millions of dollars worth of cuts with the primary goal of increasing staff salaries. Last year, the board decided against closing any schools, but board members have expressed that the need to do so is greater this year.
“We’ve kicked the can down the road … it’s getting heavier and heavier,” Superintendent Anthony Lewis said.
If closed, Broken Arrow could potentially be used to expand space for Billy Mills Middle School or as a Native American Student Services Center, Lewis said.
But speakers at the hearing pleaded with board members and administration to look beyond the numbers and find a more creative solution to cut costs.
“We have an obligation to make this city a place people want to live in,” said Broken Arrow parent Angie West. “This is a community built on diversity, education and its progressive nature … I’ve read what is said at these meetings, I’ve been at these meetings. I just don’t believe that the heart is there.”
Another concern voiced by multiple speakers was a lack of focus on the equity issues that closing a school in eastern Lawrence could cause.
Lisa Potter, a Broken Arrow parent and social worker, said she came to speak on behalf of those whose voices are not typically heard.
Many speakers were worried that continued cuts to schools on the east side of Lawrence would exacerbate inequalities. Most recently, the district closed Kennedy Elementary to grades K-5 after May 2021 to use it instead as an early childhood center.
“Adding yet another school closing on this side of Lawrence becomes a vicious cycle where we punish those who already have less, putting those students at a disadvantage,” said Kiley Phelps, a Broken Arrow parent.
Speakers recognized that the situation was difficult but pleaded with board members to look at the effect on students. Parent Brianna Hodge recounted the story of telling her child that their school might close.
“We sat in the car for 15 minutes while she cried … So yes, this is a huge emotional toll for all of us. Ms. [Amanda] Green is an exceptional principal and a huge asset to this community,” Hodge said, to high praise from those watching.
Many said they wanted to see deeper cuts at the administrative level. Lewis has previously said that because cuts were made in administration last year, he would not recommend any this year.
“If we can’t afford to keep schools, we can’t afford to keep admin at the level we currently do,” said Alex Landazuri.
Board President Shannon Kimball has said at earlier board meetings that the budget crisis is too significant to avoid cutting staff or schools while still attempting to raise staff wages to a competitive level, as the district outlined as its top priority earlier this year.
Broken Arrow fourth-grader Piper Phelps talked about her election to Student Council and what that has taught her. She pleaded with board members to follow the same lessons as they make their decisions.
“My teachers, my mom and Ms. Green have said to always speak up when you see something that is hurting others,” she said.
School board members will meet at 6 p.m. Monday, March 27 at district offices, 110 McDonald Drive. People may sign up to give public comment during that meeting by emailing PublicComment@usd497.org or filling out a signup sheet before the meeting begins. The meeting will be livestreamed on the district’s YouTube channel.
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Note: A misattributed quote in this article has been corrected.
Cuyler Dunn (he/him), a contributor to The Lawrence Times, is a student at the University of Kansas School of Journalism. He is a graduate of Lawrence High School where he was the editor-in-chief of the school’s newspaper, The Budget, and was named the 2022 Kansas High School Journalist of the Year. Read more of his work for the Times here.