Post last updated at 12:22 a.m. Tuesday, March 28:
The Lawrence school board has voted to close Broken Arrow and Pinckney elementary schools.
The board’s votes were 4-3 for both schools. Shannon Kimball, GR Gordon-Ross, Kelly Jones and Paula Vann voted yes. Carole Cadue-Blackwood, Erica Hill and Kay Emerson voted no.
Board members heard from 29 members of the public on the agenda item of school closures, 27 of whom spoke in person. All but one commenter — a district administrator — pleaded with the board to keep the schools open.
The district proposed closing the two schools, estimated to save $300,000 to $400,000 each, as part of its goal of making $3.8 million to $4 million in cuts to its 2024-23 budget. The main reason for that push is to increase staff wages.
“It is so critically important to the success and the vitality of this district to not only recruit but retain our effective staff,” Superintendent Anthony Lewis said ahead of the vote.
Community members waited until after 9 p.m. for public comment on the school closures to even start, and it continued for about an hour and a half.
Four students — whom the board allowed to speak first — asked board members to keep the schools open.
“I don’t want to remember fourth grade like this,” Broken Arrow student Piper Phelps told the board.
Pinckney first grade teacher Tabitha Pestock told the board how the school’s teachers do more than teach — they help care for kids. She spoke about the extra support the school provides, such as on-site laundry and shower facilities. That’s just the culture of Pinckney, she said.
“This has nothing to do with the school closure,” Pestock said. “This has everything to do with the support and safety nets Pinckney has spent years putting into place so our marginalized students and their families will not be forgotten and fall through the cracks. All of this will be ripped away from them — all the support that they rely on — and there are no plans that we can see that replace these as effectively as what we have in place for them.”
Pestock along with other public commenters urged the board to take their concerns into consideration and vote “no.”
“We just want our children, our students taken care of,” Pestock said. “So if you feel like joining us and continuing to help our marginalized families, then vote no. Please help us.”
The school board voted in April 2021 to close Kennedy Elementary School to grades K-5. Rebecca Weinmann shared the effects that closure had on her family: a mile longer and more dangerous walk, with no transportation because their family lived within 2.5 miles of their new school; lower test scores; and, overall, a lower quality of life.
“Voting yes to this plan tells me nothing was learned from the previous mistakes that caused hardships to our families,” Weinmann said. “Please do not continue to put the burden of balancing the budget on our most at-risk students without a real plan.”
Kiley Luckett, the district’s mental health coordinator, was the lone speaker to ask the board to “make the hard decision and do what’s best for the district as a whole” by closing schools.
Board President Kimball said state law doesn’t allow the district to mix funds from the sale of a building with its general operating budget, so even if the district sold its offices at 110 McDonald Drive, that money could not go toward salaries. She also said state regulations on alternative energy create challenges and complications for a proposal to use renewable energy, so that might not be possible.
Cadue-Blackwood reflected on working to get the name of Billy Mills Middle School — formerly South — changed. She recognized the challenges that closing Broken Arrow could raise for Lawrence’s Native families.
Board Past President Hill asked if there were any considerations for the shower and laundry facilities at Pinckney. Lewis said that staff “wherever the kids go” could look at the needs, and “our staff will take care of our students’ needs. They’ve proven that; they will continue to prove that.”
Board members had questions about transportation issues, too. Administrators said they’re planning to meet with the Safe Routes to Schools group Tuesday, and several public commenters took issue with the perception that the district didn’t actually have a plan for transportation. Many people were concerned about some of the higher-traffic streets that students would have to cross to get to their new assigned schools.
Jones said she understood the transportation concerns from direct experience, but that she has faith in the district’s prioritization of safety. She shared about the time when her daughter was hit by a car while walking in a “very walkable neighborhood” in East Lawrence.
“I want to tell you from my own experience, I do believe that the district will look at transportation in a way that accounts for student safety,” Jones said. “And they’ll be thorough about that.”
Recommended boundary changes from the district’s Boundary Advisory Committee outline which schools Broken Arrow and Pinckney students will be assigned to next year.
Most Broken Arrow students will be assigned to attend Cordley and Schwegler, while others will attend Langston Hughes, Prairie Park and Sunflower. Most Pinckney students — 123 out of 169 — will be assigned to Deerfield.
Students at schools not being closed will also be affected by the new boundaries. Under the BAC’s recommendation, if approved:
• 13 Cordley students will transfer to Hillcrest;
• 30 Hillcrest students will transfer to Quail Run;
• 20 Deerfield students will transfer to Sunset Hill; and
• 30 Deerfield students will transfer to Woodlawn.
Incoming fourth or fifth grade students who have one or more siblings and have been reassigned to a new school would have a choice of which school they’d like to attend, board member GR Gordon-Ross has previously said. Those students would be automatically approved for a transfer. Kindergarteners through third grade students and fourth or fifth grade students without siblings in the district who have been reassigned would not have the same choice, but they would be able to go through the district’s transfer process.
The board on Feb. 27 also voted to form a committee to examine repurposing Liberty Memorial Central Middle School into a magnet or themed school. Administrators had recommended that changes take effect with the start of the 2023-24 school year, but the board’s vote pushed the timeline back to the subsequent year.
The board concluded their meeting close to midnight, agreeing to delay two reports — on HR staff surveys and proposed boundary changes — that they were supposed to hear from district staff on Monday until their next meeting, set for April 10.
Distraught community members leaving the board room after the final votes came down declined to speak with us.