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Lawrence school district committee to recommend postponing middle school boundary changes

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A Lawrence school district committee decided Wednesday to recommend the district keep its current boundaries with the conversion of one middle school into a STEAM school next year, pushing boundary changes out a year.

Liberty Memorial Central Middle School is shifting its focus to STEAM — Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math — next year. During their final meeting for creating boundaries, Boundary Advisory Committee members agreed maintaining the current middle school boundaries for another year would be best, based on feedback from the community, they said.

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“The biggest thing that I heard, overarching, was, ‘This is too much,’” said GR Gordon-Ross, a school board member serving on the BAC. “‘You’re changing too many things at one time, and you can’t tell me why or, you know, you don’t really know the impact of the change.’”

Working on a tight deadline throughout its four meetings over the past three months, the committee Tuesday had to finalize its boundary recommendation to Superintendent Anthony Lewis. Options were between the current boundaries, Concept A and Concept B.

As part of two public input sessions last week, committee members and consultants with RSP & Associates met with families and district staff members to hear their questions and feedback on them.

Several committee members on Wednesday echoed Gordon-Ross and said they heard similar comments.

Member Emerson Hoffzales said they spoke with families who are continuing to feel negative impacts from Broken Arrow and Pinckney elementary school closures.

In addition to the in-person public input sessions, the committee had an online survey that closed Tuesday. Results showed out of 421 responses, 136 favored Concept A, 152 favored Concept B, 89 favored the current boundaries and 44 gave no answer.

Although those data points show less support for keeping the current boundaries, Gordon-Ross said his understanding is that people just wanted less change.

As part of the recommendation, BAC is asking the school board for a comprehensive boundary review that takes into consideration elementary and middle school boundaries. The committee would also like the board’s help making a list of priorities.

If ultimately approved by the school board, the committee plans to spend next school year completing the review and creating the new boundaries to go into effect during the 2025-26 school year. Chief Operations Officer Larry Englebrick said Wednesday that they would start early, using the annual enrollment count on Sept. 20, 2024 at a kickoff.

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Committee members liked the idea of potentially asserting a “pure feeder pattern,” meaning certain elementary schools will feed into certain middle schools that will feed into one of the two high schools, like a pipeline. According to RSP’s report from the public input sessions, some families showed interest in that.

RSP CEO Rob Schwarz estimated it wouldn’t be possible to have an absolute pure feeder pattern, and he said deciding where there’s wiggle room will be important. He said the committee’s work thus far “can still be applicable” to future plans.

At the beginning of Wednesday’s meeting, RSP planner Ginna Wallace kicked off RSP’s presentation with an overview of Concept A and B. The group quickly dove into discussions.

Committee member Nikki Perry said boundaries are about equity, especially given RSP’s socioeconomic status analysis showing LMCMS and Billy Mills Middle School have the highest percentages of students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunches.

But several members argued that the inequities between schools are more related to the district’s budget and the City of Lawrence’s planning.

“Some of it is, we can’t fix the way Lawrence has developed,” committee member Mark Preut said. “That’s beyond the scope of the boundaries within our schools.”

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After much discussion, Gordon-Ross warned the group that they no longer had time to further tweak either Concept A or B. That’s when he suggested they pull back their plans to change boundaries and stick with the current ones.

There was very little pushback from other committee members, and the majority of them agreed they didn’t want to rush the process.

If middle school boundaries are kept the same, returning LMCMS students would still be able to choose to stay at the STEAM school or transfer to another school.

Enrollment is heavier at West and Southwest middle schools, so if a student not interested in the STEAM school applied to either of the two and didn’t get a spot, they would go to Billy Mills Middle School.

BAC members did not take a formal vote on their decision Wednesday, but they did come to a group consensus.

Next, Lewis will be asked to approve the committee’s recommendation. Finally, the Lawrence school board will take a vote on Lewis’ recommendation.

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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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