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Thursday, July 10, 2014

Ambush on education

By Connie Dietz

Elections have consequences, and not always good ones.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the budgetary betrayal of USD 259 students we’ve witnessed since the current governor and Legislature assumed power.

As we lobbied for our school district’s 2008 bond issue, the second since I joined the school board in 1999, we planned FEMA-safe shelters in every building and state-of-the-art fine art classrooms and new athletic facilities in our high schools. We replaced three outdated facilities, built six new schools, eased overcrowding, upgraded career and technical education classrooms, and provided equitable facilities in our core neighborhoods.

But what neither I nor any of my fellow board members planned on was building a fiscal year 2012 budget based on 1999 funding levels. We did not plan on freezing the salaries of all of our hardworking employees, including teachers, custodians, clerks, principals, counselors, librarians and maintenance people. We did not plan on eliminating more than 200 positions. Nor did we plan on eliminating or slashing programs we knew were making a difference in the lives of students.

On March 5, my fellow board members and I voted to close four schools and to alter the original plans for one of the new high schools and one of the new K-8 buildings. It was one of the most difficult and frustrating votes I have made in my 13 years on the board. Fortunately, we were able to save several outstanding programs by moving Northeast Magnet High School to the new northeast high school, moving Mueller Elementary School’s aerospace magnet program to the current new Isely Elementary School building, and continuing to provide an open education environment at the new Lewis Open Magnet Elementary School facility.

None of us wanted to do this, but what could we do after the governor’s and the Legislature’s ambush of public education?

As this reality took shape over the past 21/2 years, we held four public meetings where more than 1,000 Wichitans contributed in person and via the Internet. Superintendent John Allison hosted a focus group that met five times to review “supposals” and offer input. The topic of boundaries appeared on the school board’s agenda 17 times, and the finished plan barely resembles the supposals originally offered because of that strong public input.

Despite those efforts, from principals, teachers, students, parents and many others, we’re all grieving with the parents while they helplessly watch the closing of their beloved neighborhood schools.

We’re here because our governor and the majority of our legislators – who may or may not even believe in public education, who may or may not believe that kids in urban districts deserve the same high-quality facilities that suburban students enjoy – insisted on building inequality into our educational system.

But the vote is done. The decision has been made. We must move forward and focus on what is best for the 50,000-plus students here. Our district’s top priority will continue to be about providing 21st-century education to all students.

I ran for the school board because I wanted to help build one of the best urban districts in the country. My first career was as an elementary school teacher in Wichita, and one of my passions remains the welfare of all children. I understand well the importance of quality education and the doors it opens in the futures for our children.

What I don’t understand or appreciate is being painted into this almost criminally unfair corner by the governor and Legislature.

Connie Dietz is vice president of the Wichita school board.

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