October 20, 2011

Focus group on school boundaries discusses closing, opening schools

Wichita's new school boundary plan should include closing some schools, opening new ones, and moving some magnets and other programs to different buildings, a focus group said Thursday.

Using electronic clickers to cast their votes, an overwhelming majority — 97 percent — of people on a select committee studying boundaries told consultants that's the kind of proposal they'd like to see next month.

The vote came after more than two hours of presentations from district officials and consultants.

"We don't have an approved model. We don't have a finished product," said Mark Porter, a planner with RSP Associates, a consulting firm hired by the district.

Superintendent John Allison told the group that although new schools and classroom additions are going up as part of a $370 million bond issue, the district faces financial challenges.

"We need to have a different conversation than we really envisioned with passing the 2008 bond," he said. "As we talk about some of the exciting opportunities we have, we do have some issues when it comes to dollars."

Operating five new schools would cost at least $24.3 million a year, Allison said. That's why options like closing or merging schools or moving programs have to be considered, he said.

"Just like everyone, you'd love to put that extension on the house," he said. "But you can't if you can't write the check for it."

The 50-member focus group is made up of parents, business and community leaders, students, principals and district employees. The roster includes Wichita Police Chief Norman Williams; former school board member Chip Gramke; Randy Thon, co-chair of the district's bond oversight committee; and Phil Neff, who ran unsuccessfully for school board in April.

They spent much of their first meeting compiling a lengthy list of issues they'll have to address in any boundary plan, such as transportation, diversity, athletics and tradition.

The district hasn't tackled a boundary change of this magnitude since 1978, when Northwest High School opened. The focus group is scheduled to meet monthly to evaluate "supposals" and come up with one or more boundary plans to present to the public at forums in January.

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

"The end product would be boundary lines that set Wichita on a course for the best academic achievement Wichita schools could provide," said Porter, the consultant.

"It won't be easy. It won't always be popular. ... But doing what's right sometimes isn't the most popular, when it's right for kids and their education."

The focus group voted yes or no Thursday to five general questions that will steer the consultants' boundary supposals.

The first: Should the district open all (new) buildings as new attendance centers, at an additional cost of approximately $34.6 million?

Nearly two-thirds of the group voted no.

On the second question — Should the district consider closing buildings as part of the new boundary plan? —81 percent of members voted yes.

Allison said he wasn't surprised that the group suggested closing buildings or moving programs to make the district more efficient. But things will get more challenging as proposals get more specific, he said.

When consultants asked whether the district should "operate exactly as it does today and open NO new buildings," an overwhelming majority of focus group members — 91 percent — voted no.

At the group's next meeting Nov. 15, the Overland Park-based consultants likely will present several boundary options. Because they don't have direct ties to any Wichita schools, "there's objectivity there, along with the expertise," Allison said.

Robert Schwarz, president and chief planner for RSP Associates, shared some of the mathematical formulas his company uses to estimate enrollment and demographic trends. The goal, he said, is to pair the science of drawing boundaries with the focus group's knowledge of Wichita schools and their passion for the community.

"We will be leaning on you," Schwarz said. "We need you to be vocal. ... We have to hear your input. If we don't end up with your input, what ends up going to the public may not be as good as it needs to be."

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