Protest aims to preserve community schools as district continues to wrestle with budget deficit

Students and parents came out in droves to the board meeting on Jan. 24 in an attempt to save schools at risk of being shutdown


Kenna McNally

Community members carry signs in support of at-risk schools and teachers.

By Finn Lotton-Barker and Jack Ritter

A crowd of concerned community members led by the group Save our Schools gathered outside the district office on Monday to protest the proposed shutdowns of several USD 497 schools.

The proposals are part of the district’s effort to address the current budget deficit as well allow for staff raises.

Parents, students and teachers, waving signs and chanting slogans, voiced their disapproval of the potential closures of five schools: Pinkney, Woodlawn, New York, Broken Arrow and Liberty Memorial Central.

The protest aimed to gain the school board’s attention and to keep the schools open. Parents like Daya Ehret voiced concern that the community was being ignored.

“I just hope they hear us and at least take it into consideration,” Ehret said. “I know that they have a tough job to do too, and they have bosses and things that they have to consider. I just think we can come up with a better plan.”

Alongside their parents, students from the five schools spoke up about the value of their schools.

“I just really hope they don’t close Central or other schools,” Central student Vea Simpson said. “Maybe us being here will help them make a good choice.”

For the protestors, it isn’t just about the specific schools themselves, it’s about the communities and neighborhoods that are interconnected.

“I hope we impress on them the importance of neighborhood schools,” Woodlawn parent Jennifer Strickland said. “The importance is larger than just individual students.”

Faced with declining enrollment impacts exacerbated by the pandemic, USD 497 is trying to close a budget shortfall of about $3.5 million next year. District officials have stressed the importance of staying on track from a budgeting perspective. Executive Director of Research and Technology Zach Conrad has said savings was the number one goal.

Superintendent Anthony Lewis reinforced Conrad’s position but maintained that students will always be the first focus of the district.

“$3.5 million — that is the amount that we have to come up with legally and by statute to have a balanced budget,” Lewis said. “So savings is the No. 1 priority in terms of meeting that statute…but we are always student-oriented.”

One way to stay student-oriented in Lewis’ eyes is to keep student disruption to a minimum. Former and current school board members alike agree.

“We need to find a balance,” former school board member GR Gordon-Ross said during a later meeting of the Boundary Advisory Committee, which he serves on. “We need to find a balance between community impact and savings. We have to.”

Lewis also said he wasn’t surprised to see the turnout.

A young student carries a sign in support of Woodlawn Elementary. Woodlawn is one of a few schools being heavily considered to be shutdown or repurposed. (Kenna McNally)

“I was telling our Superintendent Advisory Council earlier today that I would be alarmed if I didn’t see anyone out there,” he said. “This is a testament to the love of our community schools, and I’ve shared that it’s not about the building itself–the roof, the walls, the halls — it’s about the staff, the students and family that make up that community.”

As community members continue to petition the school board to fully limit school closures, the BPEC (Budget and Program Evaluation Committee) continues to evaluate which scenarios are most appealing.

Last week, the budget committee reviewed dozens of budget-saving scenarios, many of which pertained to the closure of elementary schools and LMCMS in pairs or groups. At this time, “Singleton” (the term the district uses for the closure of a single elementary school) had not yet been introduced.

Each budget committee member participated in a first wave of voting to poll the committee and see how constituents were voting. When the results were revealed on Thursday, no single elementary school closure received more than eight votes out of 20.

However, the closure of LMCMS (and subsequent related closing of Broken Arrow) received 12 votes. Lewis said closing the middle school could create equity issues.

“This situation gives me pause,” Lewis said. “When I think about goals in our strategic plan, will it harm math proficiency? When we combine a number of students to go to Billy Mills, I wonder, will it exacerbate that? I just have some concerns from the view of student achievement.”

The BPEC will continue to examine school closure scenarios in the future, and in the coming weeks, they will look through the lens of an equity tool to further evaluate scenarios.

Despite decisions, USD 497 will continue to act on students’ behalf, Julie Boyle expressed in an email with The Budget.

“No matter what decisions are made,” she said, “Lawrence Public Schools is committed to providing learning environments where all students feel safe, welcomed and supported in their academic and personal success.”