Wichita school board will take condemnation of homes to court

12/12/2011 5:00 AM

12/13/2011 10:26 AM

Seven Wichita homes face condemnation after the school board unanimously approved beginning the legal process of taking those properties to make room for expansion of North High and Pleasant Valley Elementary schools.

The board voted 7-0 Monday to start condemnation proceedings to settle price disputes with the homeowners. The move was a latest in a process which began last month to use its power of eminent domain to acquire land from unwilling sellers or absentee property owners. The land would make way for a new football field, tennis courts and other outdoor athletic facilities at North, which sits on the smallest campus of Wichita’s high schools.

Tom Powell, the district’s attorney, said the legal process could benefit those who said they weren’t receiving a fair price for their homes.

The board heard from two of those property owners, who both said they’d experienced stalled negotiations and had phone calls not returned from district staff members involved in the proposed sales of their homes.

Elma Najera-Flores, who lives across the street from her parents, said the price the district was offering for their homes wasn’t enough for them to replace what they were losing.

Powell said Najera-Flores’ home appraised at $86,000, and the district offered a relocation fee of $18,900 and state-mandated moving expenses of $1,800 for a total of $106,700. Negotiations reached as high as $121,800 but the homeowners turned it down. The district made some half-dozen referrals to similar properties, Powell told the board at its biweekly meeting.

“The homes that were offered were not suitable, and the homes that would be suitable were more than what the district offered,” said Najera-Flores, whose family lives in the 1600 block of North Arkansas.

Her parents’ home was appraised at $41,000, Powell said, and with relocation and moving expenses negotiations stopped at $91,600.

“My parents are 70 and 77 and they’ve lived in their home for 30 years,” Najera-Flores told the board.

Chontae Layton said she and her husband, John, had spent $180 a month on a storage pod since last summer, trying to reach a suitable price with the district. She said she now can’t imagine recouping that cost.

“You think of us as numbers; we want to remind you we are people,” she told the board.

Powell said the district had reached settlements with 21 other homeowners north of the school’s 26-acre campus near 15th Street and Arkansas. Three property owners could not be reached. The district paid nearly $1.7 million for the 21 properties and about $120,000 in closing and moving costs.

With Monday’s approval, the negotiations now go to Sedgwick County District Court, Powell said, where a judge will assign three independent appraisers.

“What’s going to happen is the whole process will start over again,” Powell said.

The appraisal team will suggest what the homes are worth and the judge will have to approve a property settlement.

“Under all of those circumstances, if they feel they have not been treated fairly, or we haven’t offered what they deserve, then this is a good process for them,” Powell said.

The land is needed for a facilities that include a practice soccer field, two ball diamonds, the football field and tennis courts, which are part of $12.5 million in upgrades planned for the school as part of the 2008 bond issue.

Another parcel near Pleasant Valley Elementary School, at 29th North and Amidon, would be part of a $1.4 million addition including a new multipurpose room and storm shelter.

The district will have to pay court costs and legal fees to pursue eminent domain.

Board members also heard Monday night from parents opposed to boundary changes that could close schools, including Woodland Health and Wellness Magnet, an elementary school in the North Riverside neighborhood.

Sharon Powell Quincy said closing the school will cause people to move away, depleting property tax rolls and turning the area into rentals.

“We respectfully encourage you not to adopt a short-term solution for a long-term problem,” said Renee Boydo, whose son attends second grade at Woodland.

Superintendent John Allison said budget cuts of some $50 million are causing the district to examine whether neighborhood schools are the most efficient using of dwindling dollars. Currently, about a dozen schools in Wichita have enrollments fewer than 200 students. He said other districts keep schools at 600 or more.

“Growing districts don’t do neighborhood schools,” Allison said.

Allison will meet with teachers, parents and other stakeholders to look at a second series of options recommended by a consulting firm during a meeting Thursday.

Public input will be sought at other meetings Jan. 11-12 and Jan. 18-19.

The board is expected to decide on boundary changes at its meeting Feb. 27.

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