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Wichita school board to take hard look at bond issue projects

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Sunday, Dec. 8, 2013, at 6:36 p.m.
  • Updated Sunday, March 2, 2014, at 3:14 p.m.

Only a handful of projects remains on the Wichita school district’s bond issue to-do list.

But with bond funds and capital outlay money dwindling, district leaders face some tough decisions.

“The main issue is where we come up with money for the expanded projects,” said school board member Joy Eakins.

“We’ve got to do something,” she said. “But we as a board need to decide what the best thing moving forward is, and what’s fair, so I think it’s difficult.”

At issue is whether the district can afford to build an auditorium at Robinson Middle School and replace an aging wing of classrooms at Caldwell Elementary.

More than two years ago, when construction bids were coming in lower than expected and the bond issue was about $9 million under budget, the board unanimously approved plans for a new auditorium and practice gym at Robinson. Similarly, it approved a proposal to rebuild 14 classrooms at Caldwell, near Harry and Edgemoor.

The expanded concept for Robinson, approved unanimously in August 2011, calls for a new 750-seat auditorium and a practice gym that would serve as a storm shelter to be built just south of the school, at Second and Oliver. The school’s current art deco-style auditorium, which seats 530, would be transformed into band and orchestra teaching space.

Its price tag: more than $3.3 million.

The original bond plan approved by voters in 2008 called for Robinson to get a practice gym, music classrooms and an auditorium upgrade rather than a new auditorium. That was projected to cost about $2.3 million.

At Caldwell, the original bond plan called for a multipurpose room built as a storm shelter, along with student support space and music and art classrooms, for about $1.7 million. The expanded project, which would replace a large portion of the original, 1950s-era building, would cost more than $3 million.

Superintendent John Allison told members of the district’s bond issue oversight committee recently that “there is no timeline that’s necessarily ticking at this point” on either project. But cuts to the district’s capital outlay budget and the loss of about $14 million in funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency means officials may have to re-evaluate plans at those schools.

“We have to make sure that the projects within the bond are addressed and the money is there before we begin talking about additional projects and scope enhancement,” Allison said.

“Can we do what was specified in the bond – what was planned for? Absolutely. It becomes a bigger question when, now you increased the scope and we’re talking millions of dollars: Can we do that?

“And you’ve still got some rather large outstanding projects, including the new high school, that have yet to be bid that we need to be thinking about.”

Finding the money

Some parents at Robinson are urging board members to move forward with the expanded project, saying the original plan never really addressed needs at the school.

With more than 800 students, Robinson is the district’s third-largest middle school. Its nationally recognized music programs draw hundreds of students each year, and its current auditorium can’t hold the entire student body for assemblies or the crowds that attend concerts.

For the past year, Robinson band and orchestra concerts have been held at East High School’s newly renovated auditorium.

“Robinson is a perfect example of a public school and how well we serve all the different levels of students,” said Patresa Ebersole, whose oldest daughter is an eighth-grader. “But if a good environment isn’t there, then that impacts our students. … They can’t even fit in there right now.”

Because there isn’t enough music classroom space, Robinson’s auditorium is used as a classroom for six of eight periods each school day. Renovating the auditorium by replacing its old wooden seats with larger, more comfortable ones would further decrease the auditorium’s capacity and “wouldn’t solve the space issue at all,” she said.

“I know the building is a challenge,” Ebersole added. “I know it’s landlocked. I know it’s old.

“But yet, it’s beautiful, and it’s a piece of USD 259 that we shouldn’t just forget about.”

Eakins, the board member whose district includes Robinson, said she’s familiar with the challenges at the school. Nearby Hyde Elementary School, which Eakins’ son attends, holds its music programs at Robinson.

Building a new, larger auditorium “would be the right thing to do,” she said. “But right now I don’t know where to come up with the money for it. … Part of that is looking at other projects and seeing where they come in at.”

Bond managers say the first round of bids for the new Southeast High School, estimated to cost nearly $56 million, will be let in the spring. Construction on that project is expected to start next fall, and the new high school would open in fall 2016 near 127th Street East and Pawnee.

Amanda Kingrey, principal at Caldwell, said she is “trying to wait patiently” for word about bond work at her school. Officials say the school board is likely to take up the issue in January.

Board member Barbara Fuller said she’s certain both Caldwell and Robinson will get their promised storm shelters, which board members identified as a top priority. Beyond that, though, plans are uncertain.

“I know we’ve got a community that’s waiting,” said Fuller, whose district includes Caldwell. “They want an answer, and of course we understand that.

“But we still don’t have a final accounting of what our moneys look like, and … we have to get that information together and make sure everything is on track.”

Reach Suzanne Perez Tobias at 316-268-6567 or stobias@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @suzannetobias.

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