February 5, 2012

Boundary plan for Wichita schools: ‘We have no choice’

This month, Wichita school leaders will vote on a plan that likely will close some schools, open new ones, move magnet programs and redraw generations-old lines that dictate which schools students attend.

This month, Wichita school leaders will vote on a plan that likely will close some schools, open new ones, move magnet programs and redraw generations-old lines that dictate which schools students attend.

The outcry from opponents has been fierce. They accuse the district of acting too rashly, ignoring public input, overlooking concerns and reneging on promises, particularly in regard to closing small, aging schools.

“None of us were expecting this, and it’s happened so fast,” said Jacky Goerzen, a mother of two students at Emerson Open Magnet Elementary, which is recommended for closure.

“We’re just trying to remain hopeful because we love our school, and we chose it for a reason. We want them to see that.”

Board member Connie Dietz says she understands the concerns.

“We have no choice,” she said. “It’s an economic issue. It’s pure economics.”

On Monday, Superintendent John Allison will present his boundary proposal to school board members.

Although the plan could change before the board formally votes Feb. 27, a few things seem fairly certain:

•  New schools will open this fall.

Five schools, including a new high school in Bel Aire, are under construction as part of a $370 million bond issue, and board members want students in the seats.

Allison said leaving new schools vacant could cost the district up to $32 million in additional bond interest, a penalty on the federally subsidized bonds used to build the schools. Besides that, the new schools will be roomier and more efficient than most others in the district.

“That’s what I have to stay focused on as we go through this very painful ordeal,” Dietz said. “We will have state-of-the-art, beautiful facilities that allow us to actually grow and expand some really good programs.”

•  Some schools will close.

For months, the superintendent has repeated it like a mantra: A loss of more than $50 million in state aid per pupil means the district can’t afford to staff new schools and keep them running without closing others.

The plan Allison delivers to the board Monday likely will echo the most recent proposal, which calls for closing Bryant, Emerson, Lincoln and Mueller elementaries. That would set in motion a series of changes:

Mueller’s aerospace and engineering magnet program would move to the Isely building, 2500 E. 18th St. Isely Traditional Magnet would move to a new school at 53rd Street North and Woodlawn and become a neighborhood magnet. Students from the Mueller neighborhood also could attend Gordon Parks Academy, a K-8 school at 25th North and Ash that opened in 2008 and is well below capacity.

Emerson Open Magnet would merge with Lewis Open Magnet at a new neighborhood magnet near 31st Street South and Seneca. Lincoln’s 320 students would be split among Harry Street, Gardiner and Park elementaries. Bryant’s students would go to Dodge, OK, Black or Minneha, the district’s other core knowledge magnet.

Those fighting to keep their schools open say they hope the board will consider their pleas. A coalition of parents and others plans to meet Tuesday to formulate a strategy, which could include a protest parade. Several parents say they will leave the district if the board closes schools.

Dave Saunders, principal at Bryant, said teachers are struggling with the uncertainty as well. But “we have a healthy staff, and … they’re doing an excellent job staying focused on the kids,” he said.

•  At least two programs for students with severe disabilities would move.

About 30 students with developmental delays would move from Bryant to OK Elementary, said Neil Guthrie, the district’s director of special education. Another 35 to 40 students at Lincoln would move as well, possibly to the new Lewis building, he said.

Opponents of the new boundary plan say relocating those programs would cause undue stress on students. It also would require the district to add amenities such as showers and changing rooms to schools that don’t have them, while Bryant’s new special-education suite, completed in 2004, would sit vacant.

Keeping special-ed students and staff members together would make moving more palatable, said Cynthia Baker, a special education teacher at Bryant. But “we’re still sad about it,” she said Friday.

“They’ll miss their book buddies,” she said, referring to third-graders who visit the special-ed rooms once a week to read with their classmates. “They make friends with the regular-ed students, and that’s a big part of the atmosphere here.”

•  Northeast Magnet High School would move to a new school at 53rd Street North and Rock Road.

While much of the boundary plan changed from draft to draft, this part has remained constant.

It isn’t popular with Bel Aire residents, who say the 2008 bond issue promised a new comprehensive high school that would ease crowding at Heights High. And it has drawn criticism from many who live near the current Northeast Magnet, at 1847 N. Chautauqua, which would close.

But Allison says the move, prompted by budget concerns, would save the district up to $12 million a year in operating costs. Plans for another new high school in southeast Wichita are on indefinite hold.

“It’s not that we woke up one day and said, ‘Hey guys, let’s close some schools. Let’s move some schools. Let’s see who’s passionate about their neighborhood schools,’ ” said board president Betty Arnold.

“We are looking at how we can survive as a school district … trying to keep our heads above water,” she said. “That may sound a little drastic, but it’s going in that direction.”

•  The district won’t change school assignments in a predominantly African-American portion of the district.

Allison’s plan will keep in place a complex patchwork of school assignments in the so-called “assigned attendance area,” from which students are bused to seven high schools and 10 middle schools.

Board member Sheril Logan said she supports postponing boundary changes to that area – bounded roughly by Central, 29th Street North, I-135 and Hillside – to allow for more input.

“We need to involve the community in that, and we need to figure out some more details before we finally put it into place,” Logan said.

•  New boundaries will prompt a slew of other decisions.

Once board members approve a boundary plan on Feb. 27, Allison said, the real work begins. Board members will have to decide whether and how to grandfather students to their current schools, reassign teachers, reroute buses, and what to do with vacant properties.

“There’s a whole lot of decisions that have to roll once the boundaries are set,” said Logan, the board member. “That’s part of the reason we can’t delay.”

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