January 26, 2012

Wichita school district bought property near school considered for closure

Over the past five years, the Wichita school district has bought several properties near Lincoln Elementary, an aging school building being considered for closure.

Over the past five years, the Wichita school district has bought several properties near Lincoln Elementary, an aging school building being considered for closure.

According to district records, board members approved the purchase of six properties in the 1200 block of South Emporia, just south and east of the school, at a cost of nearly $300,000. The district bought four properties in March 2007, one in August 2009 and another in November 2009, records show.

Officials say the district was considering using the property for additional parking, bus loading and playground or outdoor space at Lincoln.

“The district has had a practice that if a school is on a small site and there are low-cost properties next to the site that become available, the district will purchase the property if it is prudent use of dollars and if it will benefit the site,” district spokeswoman Susan Arensman said in an e-mail.

Lincoln, just south of downtown at 1210 S. Topeka, is one of four elementary schools being considered for closure as part of a tentative plan for new attendance boundaries.

Several parents with children at Lincoln told board members this week that they were surprised to see the school on a list of potential closings, particularly because the district had been buying property nearby.

“My landlord mentioned to me that the school district had bought several of his properties to expand Lincoln,” said Alma Sanches, a mother of three Lincoln students, speaking through an interpreter.

“How is it possible that the school district is making such a misuse of our taxes?”

Wichita school board president Betty Arnold said the district bought land around Lincoln in hopes of expanding the school as part of a $370 million bond issue voters approved in 2008. The last purchase was about a year before officials decided to “pause and study” the bond issue in response to cuts in state per-pupil funding, a move that has altered and delayed dozens of projects.

“Certainly had we known that public education was going to be cut as severely as it’s being cut, some of those decisions would not have been made,” Arnold said.

Lincoln Elementary, built in 1938, got a $1.3 million expansion from the 2000 bond issue, including a new library, classrooms, restrooms and other improvements. That work was completed in 2005. The school was slated to get another $900,000 in work – a five-classroom addition that would double as a storm shelter – as part of the 2008 bond issue.

Arnold said the district bought properties when they became available and when the price was right, assuming bond issue projects would continue as planned. Officials did not consider closing Lincoln or other schools until recently, she said.

“It’s like if I’m doing well so I go out and buy a car, and then I’m told, ‘Your job’s been cut,’ ” she said. “There were some decisions you made based on an economic forecast that you felt was comfortable.

“That’s where we were as a district,” she said. “We were on the road to improving, and we wanted to continue to improve.”

Now leaders say the district can’t afford to hire teachers, buy equipment or run the utilities for five new schools – including a $31 million high school in Bel Aire – unless they close others. A tentative boundary proposal suggests closing Lincoln, Emerson, Bryant and Mueller and shifting those students to other magnet or neighborhood schools.

According to the proposal, Lincoln’s 320 students would be split among Harry Street, Gardiner and Park elementaries. More than 98 percent of Lincoln students receive free or reduced-price lunch, an indicator of poverty.

Officials said the district has no plans yet for what it would do with shuttered school buildings or adjacent properties. Arensman said no additional property has been purchased near Bryant, Emerson or Mueller.

Superintendent John Allison said once a new boundary plan is in place, administrators likely will catalog and re-evaluate district-owned property. Some could be sold, he said. Some could be “repurposed” for district or community needs.

Kansas school districts do not pay property tax on buildings or other property they own.

The district also maintains a few vacant buildings as “emergency attendance centers.” In 2009, for instance, officials closed part of Hamilton Middle School after they discovered structural problems, and some students were moved to nearby Longfellow Elementary, which closed in 1996.

Arnold, the board president, said it’s too early to say what schools will close or what the district would do with them. But one thing is clear, she said: The district’s budget is radically different than it was three years ago, when it was buying land and planning classroom expansions.

“We cannot continue to do as we had done because we don’t have the funding,” she said. “Were they bad decisions? No, but they were based on a different set of economic figures.”

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