Melody Alexander: School closures are not an equitable answer (Column)

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Note: The Lawrence Times runs opinion columns and letters to the Times written by community members with varying perspectives on local issues. These pieces do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Times staff.

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“Our people are more important than buildings. It’s our people that make this school district what it is.” — Lawrence Public Schools Superintendent Anthony Lewis

I call bull.

When Dr. Lewis said those words to a room full of press, teachers, parents, members of the Lawrence community, and even a handful of kids, you can imagine a collective eyeroll from the audience. These words were pulled nearly word-for-word from the equity impact analysis from the district’s Futures Planning Committee. Those words were, “Equity resides in the people in the buildings and the community around it — not the building itself.”

The district’s argument for the closure of four of the community’s poorest schools continued to come down to the size and shape of these buildings. And in the days after the board meeting, as other parents like me read the reports on these schools, we discovered complete candidness in the district’s shortcomings. The district was clear they hadn’t heard from the families who rely on the resources in these schools, and the only data they had to make this recommendation was based largely upon arbitrary mathematical data, which the district paid six figures for a consultant to grade.

In fact, a report from the committee’s equity impact analysis read, “We are making assumptions on student representation. Some decisions just need to be made — even without direct representation,” as well as, “Are the east-side voices representing the east side? Are they the rich, privileged voices?”

And so, once again, the community’s poorest schools are again on the chopping block. Same song, different verse.

It’s clear to the families in these schools that the district was not proactive in speaking to the people it claims to serve. Their only solution involved forcing working parents — parents working shift jobs, single parents with no access to child care outside of Boys and Girls Club — to figure out how to attend board meetings and planning sessions. When you’re scrambling to put food on your table or pay a power bill, there’s not much capacity left for attending a school board meeting that you were supposed to read about in the newspaper you can’t afford to buy.

It is once again painfully obvious our administration hasn’t taken any efforts to understand the culture of these schools. And now they’re pinning these decisions on lack of engagement from the community that doesn’t have the capacity to engage.

In the weeks leading up to the school board meeting, I met some Pinckney Elementary School parents I hadn’t seen before thanks to our school’s weekly assembly. As a journalist, I’m naturally curious and always love digging for stories, and thanks to Lawrence Memorial Hospital, we offer free coffee at these assemblies for parents and staff. It’s become a water cooler-style outlet for many parents, teachers, and paras, whose stories I’ve been mentally collecting since my 9-year-old started kindergarten. 

One mother I met over coffee said her daughter had been begging her for the entire school year to come to the weekly assembly. She worked at a fast-food restaurant and decided to be late that day, just hoping she wouldn’t get fired. She’s no rich, privileged voice. She also doesn’t have capacity to sit for hours waiting to be heard at school board meetings.

Another mother I met over coffee was fighting the urge to grab a cup. When I struck up a conversation, she explained she was headed into surgery after the assembly. Just her luck — her daughter won a school award, and thanks to surgery, she could surprise her daughter to be there. She explained the gymnastics she had to go through to orchestrate pickups for her and her three children that day, which was slightly more complicated than every other day. It’s unlikely she would have it in her to do similar gymnastics to make sure her family was represented at a school board meeting. 

And yet another highly involved mom talked to me recently and mentioned that her family had relied on the school’s laundry facilities in the past, which, in addition to showers, is one of the services provided to families in need thanks to a 2013 bond project for which Lawrence taxpayers are still paying. When I asked her if she’d be interested in speaking to the school board about her fear that the 10 years of stability she had at the school would suddenly go away, panic flooded her face. She didn’t have to say much, because I got the context immediately: Who am I to stand up in front of lawyers and professors?

The recommendation from administration claims to be pro-equity, stating that dispersing students throughout the district will create more resources. Yet they didn’t put in the work to talk to the families who will be affected. Our children are still struggling from the effects of COVID-19 closures. Families are struggling to pay bills. As our schools are closing, our Parent Teacher Organizations are paying for the lights to get turned back on at our kids’ homes, and we’re sending home self-care kits over the summer to make sure a few basic needs are met.

The fact that we’re told it’s the “rich, privileged voices” completely overlooks the reality that this is the culture we’ve worked hard to build and preserve.

On Dec. 12, 1942, a group of Pinckney Elementary School parents wrote a brave letter to the Board of Education. The district had plans to move its Black children to a segregated school. These parents expressed back then similar concerns we have today: for the health and safety of their children. When we are told that “equity resides in the people in the buildings and the community around it — not the building itself,” we believe the culture that was created in these buildings is what makes them so important and critical to the mental health and safety of our children. 

School closures have been a reality for communities for generations, and for rural, urban, and suburban communities alike. And we have very serious problems that must be tackled, one of the largest being pay increases for staff. But we can’t status quo our way into destroying our children. We must look for new solutions. Especially for the critically underserved communities that Broken Arrow and Pinckney represent. (For Pinckney, that’s 65.2% kids on free and reduced lunches and 51% who are from BIPOC populations. For Broken Arrow, 44.7% of kids are on free and reduced lunches, and it houses our largest Native American population. It also sits on land given to the district by Haskell Indian Nations University.)

Equity resides in the community we’ve built for these children. And that equity was a priority because of these schools’ walls, where they feel the safety and security they deserve. 

Will USD 497 only believe us if they spend more taxpayer dollars to hire a consultant who can tell them that?

— Melody Alexander and her husband, Topher Enneking, live in Lawrence with their two children who are students at Pinckney Elementary School. A transplant from rural Illinois, she is a writer who is active in Save Our Schools 497 and an advocate for solar energy solutions as an alternative to school closures.

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Lawrence Professional Firefighters: Incumbent city commissioners are good for emergency services (Column)

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