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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Wichita school board approves purchase for North High expansion

By Suzanne Perez Tobias
The Wichita Eagle

It took two years and more than $2.7 million, but the Wichita district finally has all the property it needs to expand outdoor athletic facilities at North High School.

The project cleared its last legal hurdle Thursday when the Wichita school board voted to pay about $744,000 for eight properties that sit just north of the school, near 15th Street and Arkansas.

The parcels, purchased under the district’s power of eminent domain, were the last of 31 properties officials needed to move forward with the project.

Plans call for a football field, a track, a practice soccer field, two ball diamonds and tennis courts. They are part of more than $12 million in upgrades planned for the school as part of the 2008 bond issue.

“This really allows us to move forward with the North property and our plans for our kids,” said board member Lynn Rogers, whose district includes North High.

“It’s very expensive, but at the same time, the alternative is not acceptable.”

Rogers said the proposed athletic fields are needed to provide North High the same amenities as the city’s other comprehensive high schools, and he noted that they would be used for physical education as well as sports. Right now, for instance, the school’s baseball and softball fields overlap and can’t be used simultaneously.

North is the district’s second-largest high school, with nearly 2,000 students, but has the district’s smallest campus.

At a brief meeting Thursday with no discussion, the board voted 4-0 to approve the eminent-domain purchase. Board members Connie Dietz, Lanora Nolan, Sheril Logan and Rogers voted in favor. Betty Arnold, Jeff Davis and Barb Fuller were absent.

Property purchased through Thursday’s action — as well as through negotiations with property owners over the past two years — will expand the campus from 26 acres to about 30 acres, Rogers said.

The district has spent more than $2.7 million to acquire land around North, a total that includes the property costs as well as closing costs, state-mandated moving costs, appraisal fees and court costs.

The recent move is only the second time in recent history that the Wichita district has exercised its power of eminent domain.

In 2002, the district went to court over land for a new Linwood Elementary School at 1654 S. Hydraulic. The district moved ahead with its plan to build the school in South Linwood Park over the objections of some who wanted to preserve the park.

Rogers said the time and money it took to acquire the North High land will weigh into the board’s decision when it considers similar plans for Southeast High, near Lincoln and Edgemoor, which could require even more property.

“We’ll have to really look at the numbers and all the possibilities there” at Southeast, he said. “But for me, yes, this will influence my decision about what we’re able to do.”

Some board members and other district leaders have said the district could forgo a proposed expansion at Southeast and instead build a new, larger Southeast High School on land the district owns at 127th East and Pawnee.

Rogers said he would have to weigh the costs of property acquisition against increased costs to enlarge the new school. And it’s unclear how moving Southeast would affect transportation or other expenses, he said.

“Having those small (school) sites really limits what you can do,” he said. “You’re land-locked … and that’s always going to be a problem.”

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

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