Vacant schools will challenge Wichita districtBy Suzanne Perez Tobias
The Wichita Eagle
Denise Nickens Randle says a vacant school building near her house is like a ghost in the neighborhood.
“When kids were there, it was vibrant. There was activity, energy. You’d hear them on the playground,” she said of the old Blackbear Bosin Academy, on 11th Street west of Woodlawn, which closed last May. Decades before that, the school was Price Elementary.
“Now it’s empty again, and it’s like life was taken out of our community.”
As the Wichita school district considers closing five schools as part of a new boundary plan, neighbors wonder what will happen to those properties and others left vacant by previous closings.
Some worry the empty schools could become, at best, a drain on the district’s already strapped budget. At worst, they say, vacant school buildings can become neighborhood eyesores.
A boundary proposal being considered by the Wichita school board would close Northeast Magnet High School, an 84,600-square-foot facility that takes up most of a city block at 17th Street and Chautauqua.
It also would close four elementary schools: Bryant, near Ninth and West; Emerson, near 15th Street and Meridian; Lincoln, at Topeka and Lincoln; and Mueller, near 24th Street North and Hillside.
District officials say they don’t have specific plans for any of the schools slated for closure and aren’t sure whether there are parties interested in buying or leasing them. Superintendent John Allison told board members he hopes to compile a “master plan” of district properties and present options to board members in coming months.
In the meantime, the district will continue to monitor and care for its properties, said Julie Hedrick, division director of facilities.
“We have a history of being a very good neighbor when we close buildings,” Hedrick said. “We continue to maintain and run the security systems. We mow the lawns, repair any vandalism, remove graffiti.
“We definitely care about and want to address any concerns neighbors might have.”
Maintaining vacant schools
Over the past two decades the Wichita district has closed or consolidated more than 15 schools. Several have been sold, including historic properties near downtown that developers have converted into apartments or condominiums.
Others remain in the district’s inventory. They include Michener, which the Wichita Police Department uses as a training center; McCormick, which has held the school district’s museum since 1992; and Field, which has been leased by the nonprofit Trees for Life since 1998.
Three schools are vacant: Booth, a former early childhood center, which the district currently uses for storage; Blackbear Bosin Academy, which closed last May when the alternative middle school program moved to Jardine; and Longfellow Elementary, which the district keeps for emergencies.
When an explosion nearly destroyed a wing at Marshall Middle School in 2004, for example, officials relocated more than 400 students to Longfellow for classes.
The district continues to mow the grass at empty schools and keeps minimal heat on in the winter to prevent damage such as frozen pipes. Security officers patrol the sites, and the district runs power to empty buildings to operate security systems.
Maintenance and upkeep costs for each vacant school average about $7,000 a year, Hedrick said.
“It’s pretty minimal,” she said of the cost. “It’s all part of minimizing damage and doing whatever we can to keep them safe and secure.”
The district “sometimes gets a bad name” for schools that sit boarded up for years or fall into disrepair, Hedrick said. But the calls are usually about old buildings the district has sold.
The former Sunnyside Elementary near Kellogg and Hillside, for instance, was sold to Calvary Christian School. When that school closed and the property suffered some damage, neighbors would call the Wichita district instead of the church that owned it, Hedrick said.
Similarly, the former Carleton School at 402 S. Broadway annoyed neighbors by sitting vacant for years after the district sold it to the city of Wichita. It has since been demolished.
“It’s a school, so they call us,” she said. “We have to tell them, ‘We don’t own that property anymore.’ ”
Old buildings, new uses
When it comes to finding buyers or uses for old school buildings, Wichita has been more fortunate than many urban districts.
Wichita developer Don Vaughn Sr. converted the old Martinson School at Second and Athenian, just east of Meridian, into a striking apartment house with 9-foot-tall windows. Then he bought and renovated the old Alcott school near Wesley Medical Center into apartments.
His son, Don Vaughn Jr., is partnering with Tom George to convert the former Sunnyside and Kellogg elementaries into apartments as well.
David Burk refurbished the old Wichita High School at 324 N. Emporia into 68 market-rate apartments called the Flats at 324, which opened last year.
“They’re really great projects,” Burk said. “Anytime you can take an older building and put it back into circulation, it’s a great thing.”
Burk said some of the qualities people love about old school buildings — wood floors, wide corridors, high ceilings and big windows — make great living spaces, especially near downtown.
The cost of renovating an older building, however, can be a roadblock. Tax credits for refurbishing historic buildings or creating low-income housing can help, Burk said.
“There’s usually lead-based paint, asbestos, those sorts of things,” he said. “It really depends on the area and the building itself, but there’s definitely a demand for those sorts of spaces.”
A difficult sell
The district’s remaining vacant buildings, however, may be harder to unload than ones it has sold in the past.
The five proposed to close as part of the new boundary plan — particularly the enormous Northeast Magnet High School — could be a real challenge.
Commercial real estate agent Jeff Englert said finding the right buyer for an old school building can be tough.
“You’re pretty limited on what type of uses can go into those properties,” said Englert, of Grubb & Ellis/Martens Commercial Group.
Schools often cost a lot to reconfigure for more conventional functions. The buildings may be old, sit on residential streets, have too few bathrooms, have rooms that are too large or too small, or may be zoned for another use.
“The most applicable use would be an apartment conversion, maybe office use for someone with some creativity,” he said. “A lot depends on the location and … zoning issues.”
Sometimes churches like to buy old school buildings because gymnasiums can be converted to sanctuaries or fellowship halls, he said.
Hedrick said the district may not look to sell all its old school buildings. Some could be used for other district or community programs or leased to nonprofit groups.
Her staff’s priority now, though, is getting new buildings and renovations ready to open in the fall. What to do with vacant or soon-to-be vacant buildings is “an important decision to make, but we’ll make the ones related to kids first,” she said.
For Nickens Randle, whose front porch looks out at the former Blackbear Bosin Academy, the important thing is that something useful and positive is done with the building.
“It’s a nice building in great shape,” she said. “It’s a shame for it to just sit there empty.”Reach Suzanne Perez Tobias at 316-268-6567 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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