NEWS: School Closure Proposal Nears Final Decision

Decision on elementary, middle school closures expected soon following emergency staff meetings on Friday.

Cici Hunter and Natasha Torkzaban

One year after the USD 497 Board of Education reached a consensus that no schools would shut down in light of budget cuts, a newly drafted proposal will put three schools on the chopping block.

“Closing disparities have plagued this community generation after generation,” board member Carole Cadue-Blackwood said at the Feb. 14, 2022, meeting.

The new proposal was drafted by the Futures Planning Committee, a group constructed by the district “to develop recommendations to the board about aligning student needs with the board’s strategic plan.” 

The proposal contained plans for closing three elementary schools and repurposing one middle school and is estimated to save between $935,000 and $1.1 million.

The Kansas City-based architectural firm ACI Boland Architects was hired by the district to conduct a facilities evaluation of thirteen elementary schools, the East Heights building and four middle schools — ranking them each on several conditions. According to the Futures Planning Committees’ website, this evaluation was used to “develop a system-wide recommendation to align the current and future educational needs of the district.” 

“We first considered the condition of the buildings and then the other things the board might be interested in learning,” Principal of ACI Architects Doug Loveland said. “We were asked to look at five levels of criteria: classroom condition, count, size, access and special program spaces.” 

The proposal sparked frustration from community members, with many stating that the district was not fully considering other options. These concerns ultimately led to a protest held outside the district office just hours before the Feb. 21 specialty board meeting began. 

“Saving our schools isn’t about saving buildings, it’s about finding the best path forward for students and staff and teachers,” Save Our Schools Organization Member Alicia Erickson said. “Every cut they’re looking at — that cuts a person’s job, that cuts a position — should be removed as far as possible from the direct interaction of the students before it starts coming to the closing of schools.”

Despite the concern from the community, the district still plans to move forward with the proposal.

“Whenever we talk about school closures, it’s a very difficult topic,” Chief of Operations Larry Englebrick said. “There are going to be some people who are absolutely against school closures and some who understand it.”

The data presented at the Feb. 21 specialty board meeting revealed that Woodlawn and New York elementary, as well as Liberty Memorial Central Middle School, received the lowest composite scores based on the facilities evaluation.

Following a presentation regarding the facilities evaluation, the board held a Q&A session. Many of the questions asked were left unanswered, raising concerns from board members GR Gordon-Ross and Kelly Jones.

“The uncertainty has to stop, what does repurposing and closure even mean?” Gordon-Ross said. “I just think trying to close two elementary schools and repurposing one middle school before August is egregious.” 

Jones echoed concerns, asking Loveland if building educators and administration had been consulted. The answer was no.

According to Chief Academic Officer Patrick Kelly, there was an “emergency staff meeting” after school on Friday at Woodlawn, Pinckney and Broken Arrow elementary schools, as well as Liberty Memorial Central Middle school.

In an email sent to staff, Kelly said the meeting was held to “share information regarding the recommendation going to the Board of Education on Monday evening.”

Although official decisions will be made at the Feb. 27 board meeting, the near-future meeting’s agenda states the official recommendation from district members.

I move the board of education to approve the Superintendent’s recommendation to include middle and high school staffing reduction, the repurposing of Liberty Memorial Central Middle School and further authorize the Superintendent to conduct public hearings for the potential closing of Broken Arrow, Pinckney and Woodlawn.”

The Free Press will post updates on and @fsjournalism on Instagram and Twitter as more information comes to light.