Wichitans offer plenty of questions about school attendance boundary changes

09/28/2011 12:00 AM

08/05/2014 5:05 PM

Wichita residents got their first chance Wednesday to ask questions, voice concerns and offer suggestions about new school attendance boundaries — and they had plenty:

Will a new southeast high school be built as promised by the 2008 bond issue?

Will two new K-8 schools be neighborhood or magnet schools?

Could a grandfather clause allow students to continue attending their current schools?

How will the district make sure its schools are diverse and equitable?

More than 15 easel pages full of questions were posted along one wall of the Southeast High School gym, where the district held its first of several public forums on boundary changes.

"This is one of the bigger things this district is embarking on in the past 40 years," said Rob Schwarz, chief executive officer of RSP Associates, a consulting firm hired by the district.

Wednesday's low turnout — only about 125 people for a district of 50,000 children — wasn't surprising, Schwarz told the crowd, because proposed map lines haven't been drafted.

"When we are talking in January, you will see a packed house," he said.

Superintendent John Allison spent the first part of the forum explaining economic factors that could affect boundaries.

Five new schools — a high school, two K-8 schools and two elementaries — are under construction as part of a $370 million bond issue and are scheduled to be ready for students next fall. Because of budget constraints, however, the district might not be able to afford startup costs and annual operating expenses for some of the schools. A new high school planned near 143rd East and Pawnee is on indefinite hold.

Boundaries "are going to look a little different than what was originally planned in 2008," Allison said.

More questions were asked than answered at the boundary kickoff, but consultants released a specific timeline for the process.

According to the plan, a "superintendent focus group" will meet monthly through the end of the year to craft boundary options. Four public forums scheduled in January — Jan. 11, 12, 18 and 19 — will give the public a chance to see boundary proposals in detail and offer feedback.

The focus group will reconvene after the community meetings to draft a final proposal, which will be presented to school board members on Feb. 13.

Allison said he doesn't know how members of the focus group will be selected or how many there will be. "I'll be looking for guidance from the (school) board," he said.

Linda Knudsen, the mother of two children who attend Hadley Middle School, said she hopes the district keeps the process transparent and keeps families informed.

"I get a little aggravated that they seem to dole out information in little bites at a time," she said. "We really knew nothing coming in here today about how this will work."

Knudsen and her husband, Cris Naegele, said they bought their house based on its neighborhood schools — OK Elementary, Hadley and North High — and they hope their boundary lines don't shift.

"I don't want to see change made for the sake of change," Knudsen said. "If some of the district doesn't have to be tampered with, they should try to leave it alone."

Other suggestions noted on worksheets, though, included "Make sure diversity is examined," "Look at distances children have to travel," and "Start everything from scratch."

The comment at the top of one easel: "If new southeast high school is not built, it will be a lie to the community."

Parent Ellen Ropar, who has two children at Southeast High School and says the school is overcrowded, said she understands the district's financial constraints but hopes the new school will eventually be built.

"If they can't build it right away, I just don't want to see them lose that (bond issue) money," she said.

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