Two schools move closer to closure, secondary staffing cut

School board approves budget cuts as efforts are made to improve staff pay

Two elementary schools move closer to closing while efforts to convert Liberty Memorial Central Middle School into a special-themed building will proceed with a delay following votes early this morning in USD 497.

Votes to proceed with hearings for closing Broken Arrow Elementary and Pinckney Elementary each passed 6-1. The proposal to hold hearings to close Woodlawn failed 4-3.

Meanwhile, eliminating 50 full-time high school and middle school jobs passed 6-1. Other proposed changes, including discussion about transitioning to a four-day school week, have been pushed off to the March 27 school board meeting. The decisions would save more than $4 million, according to estimates.

Superintendent Anthony Lewis said the cuts were needed in order to close a budget deficit and improve pay for staff. 

”Any adult that comes in contact with our students in our buildings, that’s our most important asset,” Lewis said. “And we’ve cut, and cut and cut people before, but yet we have not done a good job of cutting facilities. And now we have no choice.”

Nearly 100 students and families from the impacted schools gathered before the meeting carrying signs that read “Put families and teachers first,” and “Please put students’ safety first.” 

The gathering was organized by the Save our Schools group and drew in people from across Lawrence to fight the decision.

“I’m not here for [my child] right now. I am here because my community is going to lose some really important neighborhood schools,” Jenn Martin said, the parent of a student at both Woodlawn and Free State. Martin said she fears the broader impact that closure may have on students.

 “When we lose neighborhood schools, we lose ways to support each other and grow as a community,” she said.

The votes followed two long hours of emotional pleas from the public.

“This has been hard, five years up here, and I have always tried to be very mindful of the decisions I make,” school board member GR Gordon-Ross said. “I try to make decisions that are in the best interests of the entire district. I never tried to vote in a way that puts me in the position to support a single platform or to better my political future. That’s why we’re here. We need to lay the groundwork for this district’s future.”

School Closings

Moving forward, Broken Arrow and Pickney Elementary are still on the table for closure. This news of possibilities hit families and staff members Friday. 

These two schools make up 15% of all elementary schools in the district.

Each building received an Equity Impact Analysis, a tool developed by Cynthia Johnson, executive director of inclusion, engagement, and belonging. All buildings received a “Must Be Cut” result from the impact assessment.

“There is a range of should be cut, must be cut, cannot be cut, or should not be cut,” Johnson said. “There was a request to do an extension of the equity analysis already completed by the Futures Planning Committee.”

The evaluation is based on four criteria; access, representation, meaningful participation, and high outcomes. The results of the review placed the three elementary schools in the “Must Be Cut” category.

As the board moves forward with school closures, the Boundary Committee will meet to discuss how boundaries will change in different scenarios. Unlike this year, last year’s school closures discussion began with boundary committee proposals and scenarios. Ron May, Director of human resources and safety, discussed potential solutions to busing problems.

“Students who reside 2.5 or more miles from their school, we would receive services to get them transportation to school,” May said. “We try not to put three kids to a seat on a bus, we try to stay within that 50-60 kid range.”

Kansas Statute 72-1431 states that public schools in the closure process must go through a public hearing. Those hearings will take place sometime in early April.

Previous attempts to solve the debt issue, specifically the bond issues from 2012, 2017 have fallen flat for the schools that were up for closure although the district has closed several schools in recent years. All three elementary schools fall within the bottom five of the building ratings, with Woodlawn falling in dead last, although Woodlawn’s location across the Kansas River in North Lawrence made closure a more difficult decision for board members. The reviews were performed by ACI Boland, and was presented on by CEO Doug Loveland.

“I would like to point out that two of the things that bring the composite for woodlawn down are the number of classrooms and the size of the classrooms, with the lowest composite score of all of the elementary schools,” Loveland said.

LMCMS Repurposing

The repurposing of LMCMS would turn the school into a themed learning environment for students. The new design would be built around a theme, such as STEM fields and other hands-on skills that aren’t currently a focal point of the everyday middle school curriculum.

“We have the desire to attract students to Lawrence, specifically the east side,” said Patrick Kelly, Chief Academic Officer, for USD 497. “We are trying to create something that is new and unique and can really draw people in.”

Rather than begin that transition next year, the board voted to extend planning into December.

The budgetary savings — estimated at $325,000 — draw from a reduction in both staff numbers, and class sizes.

“We would want to resize our administration, and counseling support for a school similar to the size of 274 students in our district,” Kelly said. “Currently, all three middle schools have the exact same allocation for counselors and administrators. We plan on right-sizing that for a school of 274 students.”

Kellar Musser and Zana Kennedy contributed to this report.