Wichita school officials say they have the money to build and operate a new high school in the southeast quadrant of the district or expand Southeast High School — but not both.
Superintendent John Allison said he will present options to the school board in coming weeks that could set the course for potentially closing or “repurposing” Southeast High School in favor of building a new school on district land at 127th Street East and Pawnee.
In the meantime, he has talked with city and county officials about the possibility of locating a city-county law enforcement training center at Southeast High, at Lincoln and Edgemoor.
Whatever happens at Southeast High is likely to be a significant shift from the bond plan approved by voters in 2008, which called for a new Class 5A high school as well as a $12 million expansion and renovation to Southeast High.
“We have to put everything on the table: What’s the best, most efficient use of our space and taxpayer dollars, how does it impact student instruction, and what’s the best way to move forward?” Allison said.
Should district officials opt to build a new school, it would be larger and more costly than originally proposed — a 6A high school that would serve current Southeast High students with room for growth expected in the southeast quadrant. And they would have to decide what to do with a vacant high school at Lincoln and Edgemoor.
“Closed buildings are a big issue to us, for the neighborhood and all those kinds of things,” said school board president Lynn Rogers.
“Having a large building like that sitting there empty, I wouldn’t want to do that,” Rogers said. “Would there be other things we could consolidate there, or could we use that facility for something else?”
One option that has been discussed: locating a city-county law enforcement training facility at Southeast High instead of at the Heartland Preparedness Center at I-135 and K-96.
Sedgwick County Manager William Buchanan said he recently asked Allison about empty buildings that could work for a training center, and the superintendent mentioned Southeast High. The two subsequently toured the school, along with city officials and school district architects.
City and county law enforcement now train jointly at a former elementary school at 39th Street North and Amidon, which officials say is cramped and outdated.
The city and county had planned to split the estimated $30 million cost for their part of the Heartland center, but Buchanan and some county commissioners have questioned the expense.
“Before we spend $30 million of the taxpayers’ money, someone better take a look at other alternatives,” Buchanan said Friday.
Wichita City Manager Robert Layton said he was part of discussions about possibly locating a city-county training center at Southeast High. But after discussing it with Mayor Carl Brewer, the two decided changing plans and pulling out of the Heartland project “wouldn’t be consistent with the commitments that were made.”
“So we pushed away from the table at that point,” Layton said. “That’s kind of where we are from the city’s perspective.”
Allison said “there is no immediate offer on the table or anything like that” regarding Southeast High, but added, “There’s been some discussion about various options.”
Have Allison or other district officials been shopping Southeast High around to potential tenants as a school that could be vacated?
“I think that’s probably a true statement,” said Kenton Cox, of Schaefer Johnson Cox Frey Architecture, the district’s bond manager.
There are several reasons the district could be leaning toward abandoning Southeast High in favor of a new school building. That project is one of nearly 20 still on hold as district officials grapple with losses of about $13 million in federal funds for storm shelters and $4.5 million a year in capital outlay money from the state.
District leaders worry about so-called “bond-issue creep,” as construction costs rise and bids come in higher than originally planned.
And they are concerned that the proposed expansion at landlocked Southeast High would require additional property — and higher-than-expected costs to acquire it. They faced similar challenges at North High School, where they spent two years and more than $2.7 million to acquire dozens of properties, several through eminent domain.
Rogers, the school board president, said many of the properties they would need around Southeast are rental properties. The district would have to pay state-mandated moving costs for the residents who live there.
“I guess the question is, is it something that’s smart for taxpayers in the long run? Does it really save us money?” Rogers said.
“But if we build new, I would have to be pretty comfortable that there were some good uses for that (Southeast High) building.”
School board members have not publicly discussed their options regarding the Southeast expansion or the new southeast quadrant high school. Those conversations should be part of board meetings beginning in February, Allison said.
One thing for certain, he said, is that the district’s current budget outlook isn’t promising for staffing or operating another comprehensive high school in addition to Southeast.
Last year, the board opted to move Northeast Magnet High School to a new building in Bel Aire that was proposed and designed to address growth and relieve crowding at Heights High. Allison said at the time that the move would save at least $10 million a year in operational costs.
“The issue we have is that Southeast is crowded,” Rogers said. “We need to do something, and we want to make sure that the students at Southeast have the same access to school facilities … that our other high schools have.
“Is it best to put it there or move it elsewhere? That’s what we’re going to have to wrestle with.”