October 19, 2011

Wichita school boundaries: a tricky job to tackle

The first new boundary line hasn't been drawn, but tensions already are high in some parts of the Wichita school district. "Our parents love our school, and that's what we want," said Susan Rosell, principal of Riverside Leadership Magnet Elementary.

The first new boundary line hasn't been drawn, but tensions already are high in some parts of the Wichita school district. "Our parents love our school, and that's what we want," said Susan Rosell, principal of Riverside Leadership Magnet Elementary.

"But that also means they're concerned and maybe worried about what will happen.... We're all just waiting right now and trusting the process."

The process will begin in earnest Thursday, when a group of about 40 people appointed by superintendent John Allison gets started drawing new attendance boundaries.

The last time the district redrew boundaries — the lines that determine which schools children attend — was 2003. That change, more of a tweak, affected about 2,400 students from 14 schools.

This one, prompted by new schools and classroom additions as well as changing demographics districtwide, could affect more than 50,000 students and their families.

Allison said some schools could close. New ones may not open as promised in the 2008 bond issue. Moving kids from crowded schools to ones with more space may sound simple, but it's not.

"We're talking about change, and that's never easy," Allison said.

Allison said the focus group includes parents and others who were chosen to represent "a slice of the community." The district will not release a list of members until the roster is clarified and finalized Thursday, he said.

Officials with RSP Associates, a consulting firm hired by the district, will help lead the focus group. It is scheduled to meet at least monthly to evaluate "supposals" and come up with one or more boundary plans to present to the public at forums in January.

The board is expected to make a decision in late February with the changes taking place next fall.

"They're all going to come from a certain perspective or role, and what I'm asking them to do is set that aside and really think long-term," Allison said.

"Understanding how economics have changed, how some of our demographic patterns have changed, how do we accomplish our goal of providing a first-class, 21st-century education? That's got to be the end in mind."

Wichita's 56 elementary schools, 15 middle schools and 10 high schools fit together like pieces of an enormous puzzle. Drawing boundaries is a science, an art, a potential political maelstrom, and one of the most difficult things school districts tackle. At issue:

* How do you fill new buildings and reapportion students while remaining sensitive to family or neighborhood allegiances?

* Should some schools close? If so, which ones?

* How do you balance schools racially and economically?

* How do you predict the rate at which certain areas or neighborhoods will grow?

* When and how should the district open new schools — a high school, two K-8 schools and two elementaries — being built as part of the 2008 bond issue?

* How do you incorporate the "assigned attendance area" — the part of the city from which black students were bused for integration — into a new boundary scheme?

* How will magnets, special education programs, athletics and programs for non-native English speakers fit into the puzzle?

Lynn Rogers, one of two school board members who will serve on the focus group, said he understands people's worries about boundary issues — particularly school closings — but hopes they'll sit tight as proposals evolve.

"I would really encourage parents not to panic at this point," Rogers said.

"There has been no decision. There is no list. Any conjecture at this point is irresponsible, because we don't have the facts yet."

The last time Wichita closed several schools was 1996, when the board voted to shut 10 elementary schools, convert two to traditional magnets and relocate other programs. That decision was prompted by declining enrollment, which translated into a decline in the district's revenue.

The move sparked months of heated debate, with some parents threatening to recall board members and others defending the notion that bigger, newer schools are more cost-efficient.

This time around, Wichita's enrollment is steady and several schools are overcrowded, but money's still a problem. Faced with reductions in state aid and expecting worse next year, Allison said the focus group has to consider all options, including closing or merging schools.

"If we're going to do our due diligence, we have to have that conversation," he said. "Where it ends up ultimately, the board's in the tough role of having to make the final decision."

Allison said he doesn't expect this week's focus group meeting to result in any lines on a map. He plans to review the district's financial outlook, and consultants will explain enrollment trends and other data.

Members of the public will not be able to participate in discussions or offer input at the focus group meetings, but they can watch the proceedings in the North High lecture hall. Community members are encouraged to monitor developments and submit questions or feedback through the district's website.

"It's going to be a fluid process," Allison said. "If we're going to engage the community in the dialogue, they have to understand that things are going to be fluid.

"The alternative is a plan's done and then you ask for input, and that's not the way we want to approach it."

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