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Friday, June 27, 2014

Wichita board's decision: when to open new schools

BY SUZANNE PEREZ TOBIAS
The Wichita Eagle

Five new Wichita schools, including a new high school, are under construction and scheduled to be ready for students next fall.

But can the cash-strapped district afford to staff them?

Can it pay for the science labs, P.E. equipment, library books and other supplies new schools require?

Can it turn on the lights and pay the water bill?

That's what Wichita school board members will discuss tonight as they embark on what could be their most monumental task in decades: deciding when new schools would open and how to shift attendance boundaries to determine who goes where.

"We're dealing with so much right now," said board president Betty Arnold.

"So many things have changed that we're back at the drawing board, actually, trying to consider everything and make wise choices."

Faced with substantial reductions in state aid and expecting potentially deeper cuts next year, district leaders say some of the five schools going up as part of a $370 million bond issue could sit idle after they're built.

One is a $31 million high school at 53rd North and Rock Road that is intended to relieve packed hallways at Heights High School and accommodate growth in and around Bel Aire. A $16 million K-8 school is under construction a mile to the west.

Another $16 million K-8 school is going up at 143rd East and Pawnee, intended to relieve crowding in the district's southeast quadrant.

And two elementary schools are scheduled to open next fall — one at the site of Lewis Open Magnet, near Seneca and 31st South, and the new Ortiz Elementary, at 33rd North and Arkansas.

Superintendent John Allison is expected to address board members tonight about the boundary change process.

That process — considering demographic data and school capacities, redrawing boundaries, presenting proposals and gathering input — would be on a fast track if board members hope to approve new boundaries before the Choices Fair in February. That's when Wichita families look at their options and decide from among magnet programs and neighborhood schools.

"I see it more as, 'If A, then B, C and D,' " said Arnold, the board president. "If we open a building, then we need to do this, this and this. If we don't, then what are our options?

"Right now our greatest challenge is being able to staff the buildings... and it's really unfortunate," she said.

In January the board voted to "pause and study" many of the projects that are part of the bond issue voters approved in 2008. Losses of more than $63 million in state matching funds and millions more in federal funds meant "everything is on the table," Allison said.

The new high school — one of two promised as part of the bond issue — is designed to open with about 800 students but could grow to 1,200. It features modern classrooms, a glass-walled library, a gym with an indoor walking track, an auditorium, a fine-arts suite, a wrestling room and a swimming pool.

It's nearing completion, but leaders have decided little about the new school, including its name. Some of its students and teachers likely would come from nearby Heights High, since the school is being built to relieve crowding there.

Allison's presentation to the board tonight, according to the agenda, includes the cost of opening new schools and "the impact that dramatic changes in state funding may have on the plan to open new schools."

He also plans to discuss a potential timeline for setting and approving new attendance boundaries.

Neither Allison nor district operations director Martin Libhart could be reached for comment late last week.

Wendy Johnson, director of marketing and communications for Wichita schools, said tonight's discussion and potential action by the board will determine subsequent decisions regarding new schools and boundaries.

"Because the boundaries are tied to physical buildings, decisions have to be made and a timeline implemented with respect to all the factors," Johnson said.

Arnold, the board president, said tonight's presentation and discussion could raise more questions than it answers. And residents shouldn't be surprised if some new schools sit empty longer than originally planned.

"The average person is aware that... not only have our funds been cut, but we still live with the possibility that more could be on the way," Arnold said.

"We are left with a large void.... We've built the schools and because of the cuts, maybe we can't afford to staff the schools. So where do we go from here?"

The meeting will begin at 6 p.m. in the North High Lecture Hall, 1437 Rochester.

It's unclear what time the board will take up its discussion of new schools and boundaries. It is the third major item on the agenda, after regular reports and presentations.

The board is expected to approve a one-year contract with Wichita teachers. Also tonight, board members will:

* Consider revising a bond issue project at Robinson Middle School. The original bond issue plan calls for Robinson, at Third and Oliver, to get $2.35 million in work, including auditorium upgrades, a new music classroom and a second gym and storm shelter.

* Approve construction contracts for bond projects at Cessna and White elementary schools.

* Hear a presentation by chief information officer Cathi Barbieri about technology in Wichita schools.

Reach Suzanne Perez Tobias at 316-268-6567 or stobias@wichitaeagle.com.

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