Neighborhood school communities react to potential closures, repurposing after USD 497 reveals which schools could close

Deep cuts would also eliminate 50 jobs in middle and high schools, transition to four-day school week

By Jackson Green, Reporter

Three elementary schools face closure while Liberty Memorial Central Middle School could be transformed into a magnet school under plans released Friday.

Staff members at Pinckney Elementary, Woodlawn Elementary, Broken Arrow Elementary and LMCMS were informed of the proposals in emergency meetings on Friday afternoon, and families were notified by email yesterday evening as well. Those plans, which will go before the school board on Monday night, left many in the affected communities reeling.

Emily Boedeker, who teaches music at Woodlawn and New York, expressed concern that the ideas on the table failed to explore all options.

I’m sad and angry,” Boedeker said. “We are in the same place as we were a year ago. No innovative ideas were considered and time has been wasted in committees. It’s unfair to our staff and families that we didn’t give a fair shot to figuring out this problem.”

The proposal is moving forward as USD 497 faces closing a budget shortfall and increasing demands to improve wages for certified and classified staff so the district will be more competitive with surrounding school districts. Officials aim to free up $9 million in funds to achieve these goals.

The school closures are just part of a large package of suggested cuts that includes eliminating 50 jobs within the middle and high schools and transitioning to a four-day school week for students with five days for staff.

USD 497 Board of Education President Shannon Kimball said she believes teacher retention is crucial, and drastic action is needed to solve the issue.

“We’re reaching this point where there are not enough people going into this as a profession for us to be able to even hire all the people we need,” Kimball said in an interview today. “If that’s the market that we are working with, and our pay is so outside of the range of competition that we’re not going to be able to attract and retain the kinds of teachers that we want to have at our public schools, we have to do something drastic to address it.”

Early yesterday, a third elementary school was named to achieve this financial goal, which was a change as most people involved had been under the impression that only two elementary schools would be presented for closure.

“It is my belief that they decided to go ahead and recommend the third building because we have the capacity to do so, and it would help us achieve the savings that we’re looking for,” Kimball said.

Many of the schools discussed have previously been considered for closure, including last year, as enrollment has declined. This year, the district undertook a review of all its elementary schools with a committee reviewing budget proposals.

If the school board pursues the superintendent’s recommendations for closing the schools, the boundary advisory committee would meet to draw up plans for new boundaries, the school board would hold hearings about the closures and then board members would cast final votes on whether to close schools.

What would become of the elementary school buildings has not yet been decided. LMCMS would be repurposed into a magnet school based around a theme such as fine arts or dual language instruction for the 2024-25 school year, according to Dr. Lewis’ release sent to staff and families as well as his report to the board, which will be presented on Monday.

Volaurie Scallorn-Snider, a long time fourth grade teacher at Pinckney, who is now a math interventionist, said she feels that students, especially those in lower-income families, are at the most risk. 

“What are these kids going to do?” Scallorn-Snider asked. “Many of our parents are managing housing, healthcare and financial struggles while trying to get their kids a good education, and this is just another barrier for them to deal with. We are basically shutting down the side of town where they have lived their whole lives, where they know how to navigate and succeed.”

With no specifics as to what repurposing Central will look like, the community around the school is concerned about the disruption. In his report to the board, Lewis notes that repurposing the school could help attract students to the east side of town. The district is already trying a similar approach by creating a Montessori program at New York Elementary.

Molly Fuller, who taught at LMCMS until this year when she moved to LHS, is concerned about the future as well.

“My initial reaction is that it’s just a shame,” Fuller said on Friday, shortly after her former colleagues learned the news. “The school is in its centennial year, and for it to be closed without a really clear plan as to what’s going to happen, I just think it’s a shame. I also worry that in the next decade there will just be a new middle school built in northwest Lawrence and this side of town will continue to be under-resourced.”

The school board will meet on Monday to review and discuss the full plan put together by the administration, but it will not go without push back from the community, and board members expect an emotional night.

School Board member GR Gordon-Ross notes that he is focussed on the process, and will save his final decision on school closures until he has all the information and the entire process has happened. But said he also knows that he can’t take the emotion out of this choice.

“I’m still trying to process it,” Gordon-Ross said. “For my entire board service I have always attempted to make decisions based on data and numbers. In theory it has made decisions easier because it can take the emotion out of it, but there’s no taking emotion out of this decision.”

Board President Kimball shared that feeling and said these are decisions that no one wants to make.

“This weighs heavily on me,” Kimball said. “And I imagine every member of our board. I mean you don’t do this work because you want to seek out making decisions like this, right? This is really, really, hard.”

Leading up to the meeting Monday, community members are encouraging board members to remember the students and their livelihoods when making their decisions on Monday, and focus on the communities, staff and students as humans — not just data.

The school board has a hard job ahead,” Boedeker said. “I would encourage them to also consider the human side of these decisions. How do we ensure our students are safe? How do we ensure that they get what they need? Our kids and families aren’t just numbers…I can’t fathom failing more families.”

Alicia Erickson, a Woodlawn parent, conveyed concern about family retention and the stress a long process like this can put on families in the district.

They must vote line by line rather than as a package proposal,” Erickson said. “Prolonging the decision to close by going through hearings will result in the loss of more families, teachers and staff, and once again cause extreme stress to everyone at that school. Look at the other innovative ways to find the much needed and deserved raises to staff and teachers.”

The meeting on Monday will provide more detail as to what will happen with the closed buildings, and the boundary committee will meet four times across the month of March to finalize where displaced students will land. Until then, the communities affected are left with the information they have, and will have an opportunity to discuss their concerns with the board on Monday.

“Our school is a caring place where kids learn and know they have caring adults,” Boedeker said. “Our school is fun. Our school is a community. We are not inefficient.”

The Board of Education will meet at 6pm on Monday night at the district office. To read the release sent to families and staff this morning, click here.

Ethan Rayome and Fiona Bini contributed to this report. Jackson Green and Rayome have family members who teach at the schools proposed for closure.