Bel Aire residents concerned about Wichita district’s high school plan

01/19/2012 5:00 AM

08/05/2014 5:47 PM

Ty Lasher can look out his office window and see Wichita’s newest high school going up at 53rd North and Rock Road, in the shadow of a Bel Aire water tower.

“Our kids couldn’t go there unless they apply and are chosen to go,” said Lasher, the Bel Aire city manager.

“That’s a concern, because … our citizens hoped for and expected a true neighborhood high school.”

Bel Aire leaders say concerns over several aspects of the Wichita school district’s tentative boundary plan prompted them to schedule a community meeting this Saturday at Bel Aire City Hall.

New school attendance boundaries are “not our responsibility or our decision, but it certainly impacts our citizens,” Lasher said.

A tentative proposal calls for closing Northeast Magnet High School and moving its magnet program to a $31 million high school being built in Bel Aire.

Superintendent John Allison says relocating the magnet program rather than opening a traditional, comprehensive high school would save the district $10 million to $12 million a year in operating costs. That’s necessary, he said, because the district has lost more than $50 million in state funding since 2008.

“You can’t lose $54 million in expected operating revenue and do business as usual and move forward,” Allison said. “I wish you could, but it’s not possible.”

The boundary proposal also calls for a K-8 school under construction in Bel Aire to open as a neighborhood magnet elementary. It would house an aerospace and engineering magnet program if, as proposed, Mueller Elementary near 24th and Hillside closes

“We all thought the bond issue would mean a new high school and K-8 for our area,” said Moe Terrebonne, a member of the Bel Aire City Council.

“We liked that not only for our sense of community but also because we wanted to build our community, attract more people,” he said. “New schools can do that. … We’re worried that the magnet (school) wouldn’t do that.”

Five schools set to open this fall, including the two in Bel Aire, are part of a $370 million bond issue approved in 2008.

Plans called for a new northeast high school, complete with athletics and fine-arts programs, to relieve overcrowding in the district’s northeast quadrant, particularly at Heights High School.

The high school is planned to open with about 800 students but is being designed to accommodate up to 1,200. It features a 900-seat auditorium and fine-arts suite, career and technical education classrooms, a wrestling room, a 2,400-seat gymnasium and a practice gym that will double as a storm shelter.

The current Northeast Magnet, located at 1847 N. Chautauqua, has an enrollment of about 600 students and a waiting list of 100 more.

Bel Aire officials said they understand the Wichita school district’s budget concerns. But residents feel like the district promised new schools and isn’t delivering.

“This is a community with a lot of young families, a lot of children. Schools are important to them,” said council member David Austin.

“This last ‘supposal’ is the best that we’ve heard so far, but it still doesn’t address the high school. … It wouldn’t do anything about the overcrowding at Heights.”

Bel Aire was a factor the last time the district redrew attendance boundaries, before Stucky Middle School and Jackson Elementary opened in 2004.

Initial plans called for sending some Bel Aire children to Gammon Elementary and others to Jackson. Bel Aire residents protested, saying attendance boundaries shouldn’t split the town, and the school board approved lines that skirted Bel Aire.

Earlier proposals this time also suggested splitting Bel Aire at 45th Street North, but the current plan keeps the city – or at least the part in the Wichita school district – together.

If the tentative plan is approved, Bel Aire children would attend the new northeast elementary, Stucky Middle School and Heights High. High school students also could apply to Northeast Magnet, a citywide program.

Parts of Bel Aire fall in the Circle school district. In 2007, the Wichita district requested to expand its northeastern boundary to include all of Bel Aire, but negotiations stalled and the district abandoned the plan.

School board member Lynn Rogers, whose district includes Bel Aire, said he sympathizes with residents’ concerns about crowding at Heights and Stucky and the desire for new neighborhood schools.

“Our real problem is coming up with the money to fund everything everybody wants,” Rogers said.

“There are a lot of alternatives, but there’s a cost to absolutely every single one of them.”

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