Wichita school board members on Monday got their first chance to pose questions publicly about a tentative plan to close some schools and redraw district attendance boundaries.
Before that, they heard from nearly 20 parents, students and neighborhood leaders who urged board members to keep their schools open.
“I find it very disturbing that you are considering to close Lincoln (Elementary) School, because the kids are the ones who are going to suffer,” said Maricela Higareta, a Spanish-speaking mother of three, through an interpreter.
“Our students need our support, and in this moment they need your support.”
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A tentative proposal for new attendance boundaries calls for closing four elementary schools – Bryant, Lincoln, Emerson and Mueller – as a cost-cutting measure.
On Monday, parents and others packed the North High lecture hall, many holding signs and wearing school T-shirts. Several urged the board to delay opening five new schools being built as part of the 2008 bond issue in order to keep existing schools open.
Superintendent John Allison told board members that mothballing new buildings could cost the district millions in maintenance, utilities, security and insurance. If new classrooms sit empty, the district wouldn’t receive state stipends intended to help with start-up costs.
Most important, Allison said, “You’re losing your highest-quality instruction space.”
Supporters of Emerson Open Magnet challenged a proposal that their school be closed and its program merged with the new Lewis Open Magnet under construction near 31st South and Seneca.
John Taylor, a music professor at Friends University, noted that Emerson was Wichita’s first magnet and has been the model for other public and private schools.
“If you close this school you dismantle an urban education success story,” Taylor said.
Others said closing Lincoln, one of Wichita’s poorest schools, would displace many low-income families who walk to the school. Lincoln also has programs for non-native English speakers and students with severe disabilities.
“I’d love to challenge you to come to Lincoln and spend a day in a class with our special-needs kids before you make your decision,” said Debbie King, whose niece attends Lincoln.
Teresa Lovelady said a plan to bus some students in a predominantly African-American area in northeast Wichita across town to Wilbur Middle School and Northwest High would continue busing for desegregation, a practice district leaders pledged to stop in 2008.
“Please just hold off, wait a little bit, get all the information you can and then move forward with a decisions that’s going to make sense 40 years from now,” she said.
A district advisory group will meet Thursday to discuss and possibly revise the boundary plan before Allison makes his final recommendation to the board.
On Monday, board members noted several parts of the proposal they want the group to consider more closely.
Lanora Nolan asked what would happen to a program for students with severe disabilities at Bryant Elementary if that school closes. Allison said officials have explored moving the program and all its teachers to nearby OK Elementary.
“I’ve heard from staff that they want to stay with their students,” Allison said. “We’d try to make the transition as smooth as possible.”
Some board members asked the group to reconsider a plan to open two K-8 schools as elementaries instead. Allison said the group could look at opening the schools as K-8s, as originally planned, as elementaries or as middle schools.
Board member Barb Fuller said she was concerned about new boundaries that would force some students who currently walk or ride bikes to Robinson Middle School to cross Kellogg to attend Curtis instead.
“RSP has attempted to use the natural boundaries, the highways, whenever possible,” Allison said, referring to RSP & Associates, a firm hired by the district.
Consultants and district officials also will crunch numbers over the next few weeks to determine whether and how new boundary lines would affect attendance at Heights High School in northeast Wichita.
A new high school in Bel Aire, set to open this fall, was intended to ease crowding at Heights, but the boundary proposal would relocate Northeast Magnet High School at the building instead.