The community should take Wichita school district officials at their word that nothing has been decided about the fate of Southeast High School, then be heard as the district seeks public comment in the weeks leading up to the school board’s anticipated vote on June 24. This is a decision best made with open minds, cool heads, good will and hard data.
It remains difficult to believe that officials would contemplate closing Southeast High at Lincoln and Edgemoor, a 56-year-old school with 1,600 students and a proud history. The idea has drawn criticism from local elected officials, area residents, Southeast graduates and others, who view it as a betrayal of the pro-bond voters and an abandonment of the lower-income neighborhood.
But there isn’t enough money to follow the outline of the 2008 bond plan, which called for expanding and improving Southeast as well as building a smaller new high school at 127th Street East and Pawnee.
Because doing both isn’t an option, at least now, the board plans to decide whether to close Southeast and move its programs to a building on the new site or to update and expand the existing school.
At Monday’s board meeting, and in a Tuesday meeting with The Eagle editorial board, district officials laid out the plan to engage the community starting in late April. They seem to want to do it right, and are setting up opportunities to gather views via site councils, parent and student surveys, the Internet, and conversations with staff, neighbors, real-estate agents and more. Among the key voices being sought are those of fifth-graders in the Southeast boundary area, whose high school years will be directly affected by the decision.
Especially with bad memories of last year’s boundary changes and school closings still fresh, superintendent John Allison and board president Lynn Rogers will need to handle the public with care and provide answers to the multitude of questions in the community.
Among them: Why not improve and expand Southeast now, as property limitations allow, and at least defer the far-southeast school until the school-funding lawsuit plays out late this year? If the Kansas Supreme Court sides with the district court, the Wichita district could see many millions of dollars in state funding restored.
It’s important to remember that the blame for this bind rests with the Legislature and governor, whose failure to fulfill their constitutional obligation to fund schools suitably has necessitated more than $60 million in cuts in the Wichita district in recent years.
That said, the school board and superintendent aren’t without options on how to respond to the loss of state aid while trying to complete the 2008 bond plan. In the coming weeks, Southeast’s stakeholders should share their ideas and concerns, and help the district come to the best possible decision, one right not only for this challenging moment but for the future.
For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman