January 14, 2012

Wichita district urged to slow down redrawing of school boundaries

African-American leaders in Wichita say they want school officials to halt plans to close schools and redraw district boundaries, saying the current proposal raises too many questions and is being rushed toward approval.

African-American leaders in Wichita say they want school officials to halt plans to close schools and redraw district boundaries, saying the current proposal raises too many questions and is being rushed toward approval.

“We’re asking that we just slow down,” said Lavonta Williams, president of the Wichita branch of the NAACP and a member of a district advisory group on boundaries. “Is this something that we really need to rush and make a decision about, as opposed to taking our time and making sure we are doing the best thing for all the kids in the city?”

District leaders say postponing a decision on boundaries could mean mothballing as many as five new schools set to open this fall as part of a $370 million bond issue.

“That’s the trade-off: If we don’t move forward, those schools don’t open,” superintendent John Allison said. “The feedback we’ve had from across the district all along has been, ‘You’ve got state-of-the-art educational facilities. They’re paid for. They’re built. Let’s use them.’ That’s been the overwhelming message.”

Wichita, the state’s largest school district with about 50,000 students, hasn’t tackled a boundary change of this magnitude since 1978, when Northwest High School opened. Officials acknowledge their timetable is tight, but they say it’s manageable.

RSP & Associates, an Overland Park-based consulting group, began analyzing Wichita housing patterns, projected enrollments, socioeconomic data and school capacities more than two years ago, when the Wichita school board voted to pay the firm $175,000 for services related to redrawing attendance boundaries.

In September the board voted to pay the firm another $160,000 for additional guidance in creating proposals and gathering public input.

But consultants presented the first “supposal” — a tentative boundary map with recommendations for school closings and transfers — only two months ago.

Since then, an advisory group appointed by the superintendent has met twice. At the group’s meeting Jan. 5, members discussed the latest boundary revisions for less than 10 minutes before agreeing to present them at public forums being held this month.

The group is scheduled to meet again Jan. 26. Allison hopes to present a final recommendation to the school board Feb. 13. The board would vote on the plan Feb. 27, and new boundaries would go into effect next school year.

Does that allow board members enough time to hear from parents, weigh options and explore alternatives? Does it give the district time to crunch numbers, transfer teachers, reroute buses and inform families before school starts in August?

“Absolutely,” said board member Sheril Logan. “We won’t be looking at this all at once (in February). We’ve been informed of things as they’re moving along.”

Rob Schwarz, president of RSP & Associates, said a typical boundary-change process takes “anywhere from three months to seven months to a year.

“Ultimately the thing that steers when it has to be completed are deadlines,” Schwarz said. “Every district we work with, they will make it happen. It ends up getting done.”

Burden of diversity

The current proposal calls for closing Northeast Magnet High School and four elementary schools: Bryant, Emerson, Lincoln and Mueller. Northeast’s magnet program would move to a new school being built in Bel Aire.

The plan also calls for two new K-8 schools to open as elementary schools instead. Mueller’s aerospace and engineering program, which last year received a $2.1 million federal grant, would move to a new school at 53rd North and Woodlawn.

Williams and other members of the NAACP say they don’t want two strong magnet programs moved out of central-northeast Wichita’s predominantly black neighborhoods. They also questioned the way the current plan would continue to bus students from one section of the former “assigned attendance area” across the city to Wilbur Middle School and Northwest High.

“The burden to implement and carry out the district’s goal (of diversity) still rests on the backs of poor black children,” said Mary Dean, a member of the Wichita African-American Coalition. “This plan doesn’t change that.”

When the district ended busing for desegregation in 2008, residents decried the shortage of neighborhood schools for students who live in the area, roughly bounded by Kellogg, Washington, 29th North and Oliver.

Since then, the district has upgraded, expanded or replaced eight schools in the area, adding more than 100 classrooms, science labs, libraries and multipurpose rooms.

Isely Elementary, at 23rd North and Poplar, and Spaght Elementary, at 10th and Grove, opened new buildings this year. Gordon Parks Academy, a K-8 school at 25th North and Ash, opened in 2008.

“There has been a commitment to create not only equitable but some of the most state-of-the-art instructional facilities in the district,” Allison said. “That shows a significant commitment to that community.”

Even so, parents like Towanda Jennings, who attended a boundary feedback session last week, said they don’t want Mueller to close or Northeast Magnet High School to move.

“If they want to stop desegregating, than stop desegregating and let us go to our neighborhood schools,” she said. “Why should our kids be bused all the way up to Bel Aire?”

Unanswered questions

Many of the more than 200 residents who attended feedback sessions last week said they felt blindsided by the boundary proposal.

And they asked questions:

•  What would happen to special-education students at Bryant and Lincoln if those schools close?
•  What would the district do with more vacant school buildings?
•  Would the new boundaries address overcrowding at Heights?
•  How would the boundaries affect magnet schools? Would there be fewer slots for students from outside the neighborhood?
•  Would the proposed boundaries reduce or increase transportation costs?
•  Could upperclassmen or others be grandfathered to their current schools if they didn’t want to move?

More often than not, officials answered, “We don’t know.”

Allison said he understands people’s frustration with the boundary proposal’s unanswered questions. Those answers will come later.

“It’s kind of like trying to decide how to decorate a house and what curtains you’re going to buy before you’ve even decided on the house,” he said. “We’re still looking at five different houses.”

Once a more definite proposal is presented to the board, Allison said, “there will be a pretty intensive manpower analysis to be able to respond to some of those questions.”

Williams, the NAACP president and a member of the Wichita City Council, said she hopes the district doesn’t rush a decision that will affect students for years.

“We’re just asking that we slow down, study it a little bit longer, ask ourselves, ‘Have we really weighed all the options?’ ” she said.

“There’s so much history and there have been so many promises made.”

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