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Decision to repurpose Lincoln Elementary School will reach far beyond building
Note: For those not from Hutchinson, this column my be a little too local for your taste. But I’d encourage you to read it anyway, because what’s happening here is likely coming your way soon, if it hasn’t already.
Last night, the Hutchinson USD 308 Board of Education, voted to merge the boundaries of Lincoln and McCandless Elementary Schools. And if you think that school buildings, teachers, staff, and community don’t matter, you clearly weren’t at last night’s meeting when the decision was made.
Despite all the rhetoric that surrounds our discussion around public education - and frankly it’s been beyond absurd - for the people who live life in these buildings, this closure is an enormous loss. Students were sobbing. Parents were on the verge of it, but trying to hold it together for their children.
On May 4, the Lincoln School family learned there was a plan to merge the boundaries and find a new purpose for their school. Despite having higher attendance than other schools under the hatchet, the Lincoln building, it was said, wasn’t very adaptable to future district needs. The other schools are bigger, the classrooms more suited for additional students and effective classroom management.
It took a mere three weeks to go from informing parents about a possible “solution” to pulling the rug out from these families. In my opinion, this decision was predestined, likely at the recommendation of some consulting firm that will quickly drive out of town to cash district patron’s check.
As I sat in the room with scores of Lincoln parents and students, I found myself looking for someone to direct my anger. But there’s no one, really, with whom to be angry. The path to closing Lincoln began ages ago. I’ve been around long enough to see the closing of other elementary schools - in particular Roosevelt and Avenue A (though I do have to say I was involved with Roosevelt’s closing, and it took far longer than three weeks and included much more parent input. In fact, the closing of Roosevelt helped spawn the creation of Allen Magnet School - because the district blended its concerns with the concerns of parents).
I can’t be terribly upset with the school board. This is a group of volunteers who are tasked with making district-wide decisions, and they have to make tough decisions as they arise. Many of which are created by external factors out of their control. Not a single board member felt good about the vote, and I know that in my heart. They, too, shed their own tears.
Every school that’s closed in Hutchinson has happened in my part of town. And while I know there’s no maliciousness in those decisions, I also know that it’s part of a complete failure of our institutions. At every level, our systems fail people in poverty and make decisions that exacerbate every barrier to growth and potential for folks without means. And if you think I’m wrong, just spend a couple minutes imagining what would unfold if we were talking about closing one of the north end schools over the course of three weeks. It would be wave after wave of soccer moms and khaki-clad dads demanding to be heard, and considered. Whether intentional or not, poor folks are seldom given this sort of consideration - and in part that’s because poor folks are used to this treatment, and its frankly easier to never really get your hopes up too much.
So, what brought us to this place?
First and foremost, closures like this rest at the feet of the Kansas Legislature. The relentless attacks on teachers and education in general (including constant attacks on funding) has pushed teachers into retirement, to different careers, and it has a chilling effect on college students who want to make teaching a career. And that is what created a crisis situation in Hutchinson that forced this change at Lincoln. There simply aren’t enough teachers to staff all the buildings.
Across the state, we elect people on ginned-up issues and scare tactics. And that works for getting votes, particularly in primary elections, but once there these people deploy their weaponized rhetoric into policy and that results in children sobbing in the arms of parents because their lives are about the fundamentally change. I hope that we, as voters, will start asking the people we elect more questions about the things that will directly affect our lives. Because everything else is performative.
Hutchinson and Reno County has a population problem, and that is to some degree outside or our control. Nationally, rural and cities adjacent to rural areas have experienced decline. I think we have some good things going on here, and I think we’re trying to make sure people know about those. But we have to be very intentional about attracting families to our community. There are some things we can do locally, but I’ll throw another barb here at the Kansas Legislature. Our rhetoric and many of our policies, particularly on social issues, is completely uninviting to most people under 40. With each legislative session, we give more people more reason to leave Kansas.
Investment follows money, and that creates a perpetual cycle of disinvestment in already disenfranchised areas. While the decision to close Lincoln as an elementary school happened on May 15, the factors that led to that decision began more than a generation ago. And despite platitudes and kind words, the people on the south side of Hutchinson have watched the actions - and those have largely and consistently led to more strain for families who have remained to live south of the tracks. Many people who can leave the area do, and that gives our institutions more evidence to justify further disinvestment. Which leads to additional strain, which leads to more flight, and more disinvestment, and so on and so on.
Next school year, Lincoln students will need to make their way to McCandless. I’m certain the district will go out of its way to make them all feel at home. I have to believe that there’s genuine sadness in this, and that there will be a loving effort to create a welcoming and warm environment for these students.
I hope it takes, but I’m skeptical. I desperately hope I’m wrong, but I expect we’ll see a drop in educational outcomes for many of these students. I think we’ll initially see more missed days - because transportation in this area is a very real concern. I think a lot of families who felt safe at Lincoln will struggle to feel safe anywhere else. People who haven’t experienced sustained poverty do not understand the discomfort we often feel in blended spaces. And we’re keenly aware of the way the world views us. We hear the sneers about the south end of town, and we internalize it.
Our institutions were never created to serve poor folks. Public education is perhaps the one that comes the closest, which is why it feels so visceral when it, too, follows the path of all institutions.
Now that the fate’s been settled, I hope the USD 308 District will authentically work with the Lincoln community to address their concerns. They’ve had the last morsel of hope stripped from their hands; the least we can do is replace it with a crumb. When parents tell you kids have to walk to school, believe them. When they tell you the building is the anchor in the neighborhood, hear what they’re saying. When they tell you working parents have to punch a clock at 6 or 7 in the morning, consider it truth. And then do something. The district will be better off in the long run for it.
For Lincoln parents and students, I’m sorry. And I hope that you’ll keep trying. I know it’s not easy to do. I’ve said it before - this part of town isn’t wealthy, but it’s the richest part of our city. The sense of family you’ve created can persist, it will just need to take a different form. Any good thing in your community has been created by you, and that will be true going forward. I hope you continue to organize, and to use this to advocate even more for the Lincoln area. This community will have to insert itself more forcefully into our institutions if it’s to have a stronger voice in the future. Institutions are awful, but we’re trapped in them so it’s to our advantage to work to influence them. Your power lies in your resolve, and in your commitment to one another. The school board was right when it talked about the magic of the community. The building has been the place, but you have been the force.
Policymakers at every level will have to start asking themselves what sort of investments they want to make in the south side of town. Years ago I wrote an editorial about how remarkable this town can be when it decides to make an investment in something. We need a new sports venue, we organize and make it happen. A new jail. Money for roads or drainage systems. Whatever we want, we make real. But it seems we seldom see that level of interest in investing in the south side of town, or its people. Yet, Hutchinson is largely a land-locked city. If we’re to grow at all, the bulk of our potential rests in the south side.
This sort of loss isn’t easy to take, and it’s the sort of thing that can create long-lasting anger and distrust. It’s in all of our interests to resist that, despite the way it feels today. For too long there’s been a sort of unspoken divide in this town, and with each loss, it grows worse. Someone, somewhere, sometime, has to take the off-ramp and try to find a way to pull these communities together. Community advocates have a duty to make their voices stronger, and policymakers have a duty to listen. And we all have a duty to care.
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