January 11, 2012

Wichita school boundary plan draws criticism in first public meeting

Karl Thomas Carter didn’t say much during Wednesday night’s discussion of tentative school attendance boundary lines.

Karl Thomas Carter didn’t say much during Wednesday night’s discussion of tentative school attendance boundary lines.

But the Wichita first-grader, a student at one of four elementary schools suggested for closure, held a sign:

“To say goodbye will make me cry.”

Karl’s sister, Megan, a fifth-grader at Emerson Open Magnet, held a sign, too: “Please save our school for next year,” it said. “Please!!!”

More than 150 people showed up at West High School on a snowy evening for the first of four public meetings scheduled to collect feedback on new school attendance boundaries for Wichita schools.

Many were parents, employees or neighbors of four elementary schools – Bryant, Emerson, Lincoln and Mueller – that would shut their doors for good this May under the current plan.

Others voiced concerns that proposed boundary lines could split neighborhoods, increase busing, endanger magnet programs and unsettle thousands of students by forcing them to switch schools.

“If I moved to South, I’d be taken from my family,” said Kasey O’Neal, a sophomore at East High. “I’m comfortable at my school and I don’t want to leave.”

Students in Kasey’s neighborhood, south of Pawnee in the East High district, would go to South High under the proposed boundary plan.

Others said some students currently at Robinson or Coleman middle schools – those who live north of Kellogg between Edgemoor and Rock Road – should not be assigned to Curtis Middle School, as the proposal suggests.

“You’ve got kids who walk to school or ride their bikes because they’re right there” near their schools, one parent said. “Busing them across Kellogg to Curtis … doesn’t make sense.”

It is unclear whether any students could be grandfathered to their old schools after new boundaries take effect this fall. That’s an issue school board members are expected to address in coming weeks.

Superintendent John Allison and representatives of RSP & Associates, a consulting firm hired by the district, began the forum by reviewing the district’s budget struggles.

Per-student funding from the state has been cut to 1999 levels, Allison said, making it impossible to open five new schools without closing others. The new schools were built as part of a $370 million bond issue approved by voters in 2008.

Plans call for closing Northeast Magnet High School and moving its program to a new school being built in Bel Aire. The original bond plan called for that building to be a comprehensive 5A high school that would help alleviate crowding at nearby Heights High School.

The boundary proposal also calls for two K-8 schools under construction to open as elementaries instead. The aerospace and engineering program at Mueller Elementary would expand and move to a new school at 53rd St. North and Woodlawn.

“Where we are, where we thought we’d be, where we were promised to be from the state has changed,” Allison said. Reductions in state funding are “a driving factor in what has to change as we move forward.”

Some conversations got heated during small-group discussions.

Sharon Fearey, a former Wichita City Council member who helped lead a previous bond campaign in 2000, said the new boundary plan amounted to “promises broken” to local taxpayers.

“We kept building and building, and it was like fiddling while Rome burned,” Fearey said. “I want my money back.”

Asked to list strengths of the new boundary plan, at least one group of about 15 people offered none. The official leading discussion wrote a zero on the easel.

Three more public meetings are scheduled to collect input before an advisory group meets again to develop a final boundary proposal. The school board intends to approve new boundaries next month, and they would go into effect this fall.

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