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Wichita could build a new Southeast High instead of expanding

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Sunday, April 8, 2012, at 7:23 a.m.
  • Updated Monday, March 11, 2013, at 1:48 p.m.

Wichita school leaders may soon consider a plan to forgo a proposed expansion of Southeast High School and instead build a new, larger Southeast High at 127th Street East and Pawnee.

“It’s something that’s been brought up a lot,” said Denise Wren, chief operations officer for the Wichita district. “We’re certainly putting that into the mixture and looking at that.”

A new high school in southeast Wichita, one of six new schools proposed in the $370 million bond issue, was put on hold more than a year ago as the district dealt with budget cuts and a new boundary plan.

Also on hold is a $12 million expansion and renovation at Southeast High, 903 S. Edgemoor, which would include a new gym, storm shelters, classrooms and athletic and fine arts facilities.

In coming months, Wichita board members will re-evaluate dozens of on-hold bond projects and decide whether and how to move forward.

The board will consider 10 projects Monday night, but the list is not expected to include Southeast or the new high school, Wren said.

The new school is slated to be an 800-student, Class 5A high school. According to the original bond issue proposal, it would be designed similarly to the new Northeast Magnet High School that will open in Bel Aire this fall and would make room for population growth expected in the area.

It also would relieve crowding at Southeast High, which is beyond its ideal capacity with nearly 1,650 students.

The district has not sold bonds for the proposed $38 million high school, and the school hasn’t been designed, said Ken Arnold of Schaefer Johnson Cox Frey Architecture, the district’s bond manager.

The district bought property for the school — 125 acres — for $1.56 million in 2010. The district recently leased the land to a farmer.

Arnold said there is enough land at the site to house a larger high school. But its cost “would increase along with the square footage,” he said.

Board member Lynn Rogers said the idea of moving Southeast to a new building is “nothing more than speculation now,” but that he would be open to considering it as an option.

It’s unclear what would happen to the current Southeast building at Lincoln and Edgemoor if the school moves. Possibilities include using it for a magnet high school program if or when the new Northeast Magnet becomes a comprehensive high school.

“Obviously that’s not in the original (bond) plan, but we all know plans change depending on the budget picture coming out of Topeka,” Rogers said. “I would say anything’s possible. Everything’s on the table.

“The question we need to be asking as a board and as a district is … what makes sense now as well as five years from now?”

Officials face several challenges trying to expand and renovate Southeast High, including space constraints. Southeast is part of a three-school complex that includes Curtis Middle School and Caldwell Elementary.

Expanding both Curtis and Southeast as proposed in the bond issue would require additional property — and additional costs to acquire it.

“There’s a lot of land purchases that would have to be done and just a lot of decisions that have to be made,” Wren said.

Officials faced similar challenges at land-locked North High School, where they had to acquire more than 30 properties to expand athletic facilities at the school. The board voted last fall to use its power of eminent domain to acquire land from unwilling or absentee land owners and is in the midst of condemnation proceedings.

At the same time, officials don’t want to break ground on a multimillion-dollar new school without specific plans for how they will open and operate it.

A new high school at 53rd Street North and Rock Road, designed to address growth and relieve crowding at Heights High, will open as a magnet instead because the district can’t afford to staff or run a new comprehensive high school.

“We have a lot of things to figure into that Southeast piece (of the bond issue),” Wren said. “We want to go at it in a systematic manner and … really move in phases.”

It’s unclear how moving Southeast would affect transportation or other costs. The new school site is about 5 miles from the current school — less than the distance between Northeast Magnet and its new location in Bel Aire.

If the board opts to move forward with a new high school this year, it likely wouldn’t open until 2015 or later.

Sheri Williamson, whose son Chandler is a sophomore at Southeast High, said she’s heard rumors about the school potentially moving to bigger, better digs in the southeast corner of the district.

She doesn’t like the idea, preferring instead that the district stick to its plan for a smaller, 5A school at the new site.

“It would have to be huge to accommodate the current Southeast and (growth in) the new area,” said Williamson, who lives near the site of the new high school and has three younger children.

“I would rather keep it two schools and make them smaller, so it’s not so huge and so overcrowded.”

Williamson hopes the district will move forward on improvements at Southeast because the school is “terribly overcrowded,” she said.

Her son tells her that “the two main intersecting hallways are like a traffic jam. You can hardly move,” she said. “He just avoids them.”

Angie Collinsworth, whose children will attend a new K-8 school at 147th Street East and Pawnee this fall, said moving Southeast High to a new, larger school might make economic sense. But she doesn’t know if she’d send her kids there.

“I’d have to really think about that,” she said. “Part of the reason for passing the bond issue was trying to alleviate crowding. It (a new school) might have more space, but it would still be a huge school.”

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

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