From the time the Lawrence Public School system was chartered in 1860 until 1997, Lawrence High School was the only public high school in the city. When the school board proposed building a second high school in 1990, they were met with resistance.
For many, the high school was a major part of the Lawrence dynamic. It was something that brought the community together. The school held a prominent place in the community and many worried that a new school would have a polarizing effect on the community.
“They were just worried about how it would change a community that was very close, where everyone was rooting for everybody and now you’d be rooting against each other,” said Barbara Ballard, president of the school board at the time.
Taking the primary stage in that debate was athletics. At the time, LHS was home to the top football program in the state.
“The thing I heard the most was football. When you are beating everyone in the state year after year after year that is big, it’s just as big as KU basketball,” Ballard said. ”One thing that people have in common is athletics.”
The 1990 bond issue vote to build a new high school ultimately failed because of these concerns. Although the vote failed, some school board members felt that the issue regarding Lawrence High School not being able to accommodate the number of students they had remained.
“If you went up to Lawrence High during that period, when the bell would ring the kids would be so packed in the hallways you could’ve stabbed somebody and nobody would know it til the crowd was gone,” former school board member John Tacha said.
In addition to safety, there were concerns that extracurricular opportunities for students were not available at a school that large.
“When you have a large high school, if you don’t have kids participating in something other than class, a lot of them are gonna get lost,” Tacha said.
Rather than simply trying again, the board took a more methodical approach starting in 1992. A study group was formed by the school board and chaired by Tom Murray, a former school board member, to evaluate the options. From there, two bond issues were put on the table: one that renovated LHS and built two new elementary schools and one new junior high, and one that would build a new high school.
“Once you pass the one bond issue that said you would build at the time three elementary schools … it was like where are all these children going to go, then the reality set in,” Ballard said.
Tacha was a large part of campaigning to get the issue to pass. This included newspaper ads, knocking on doors, and holding debates and forums.
“Without all of that organization, without all the people involved in it, it would not have happened,” he said.
Tacha said by the end he was putting nearly 30-40 hours per week into the work. Ultimately however, the bond issue passed. In 1997, Lawrence Free State High School opened.
Now, 20 years later, a new bond issue passed in August for $87 million for the schools; $50 million will go to Lawrence High School. Both Ballard and Tacha say Lawrence may need a third high school. According to the Lawrence Journal-World, this was a long term consideration even in the 1990s. Neither, however, believe there will be nearly as many reservations this time around.
“There’s no way it can be anything like bringing a second one into a community where there’s one high school and everyone went there,” Ballard said.
— Edited by Brianna Childers