February 10, 2012

Wichita school district breaking some bond promises

Signs marking major construction projects under way at Wichita schools say “Progress as Promised.” Now many district residents are loudly disputing that claim, saying a new boundary proposal breaks promises leaders made when they campaigned for a $370 million bond issue in 2008.

Signs marking major construction projects under way at Wichita schools say “Progress as Promised.”

Now many district residents are loudly disputing that claim, saying a new boundary proposal breaks promises leaders made when they campaigned for a $370 million bond issue in 2008.

“They absolutely lied to us,” said Jocelyn Goerzen, the mother of two students at Emerson Open Magnet Elementary.

“Would people have voted for this bond issue if they knew schools would close? If they knew schools would stay overcrowded?

“It doesn’t make any sense, and it’s wrong.”

Superintendent John Allison says an economic crisis that began in 2008 – around the time of the bond vote and six months before he was hired – spawned a budget situation no one could have foreseen during the bond campaign.

“Unfortunately, when the rug gets yanked out from underneath you financially, priorities change,” he said.

And they have changed.

A boundary plan board members will consider this month will not establish the district’s first new comprehensive high school in more than 30 years, as bond supporters had hoped.

It won’t significantly change enrollment numbers or ease crowding at Heights, North or Southeast high schools.

It won’t reduce class sizes to 19 students in elementary schools and 22 students in core courses at middle and high schools, another promise of the bond campaign.

It won’t open a new K-8 school in northeast Wichita to help with crowding at Stucky Middle School.

It won’t end the practice of busing middle- and high-school students from a predominantly African-American area to schools all over the district.

And it would shutter five schools – four elementaries and Northeast Magnet High School, whose program would move to a new building in Bel Aire.

Closing schools was “something nobody ever talked about,” said Randy Thon, who co-chaired a group that campaigned in support of the bond issue. He now serves as co-chair of the district’s bond oversight committee.

“Everything was voted on with the rules being what they were at the time,” Thon said. Then the housing slump hit, tax revenues plummeted, the economy tanked, and state per-pupil education funding dropped to 1999 levels.

“The rules changed in the middle of the game,” Thon said. “Nobody likes it, but you have to adjust, and you have to accommodate.”

No specifics, no deadline

The bond resolution, which passed with 51 percent of the vote in November 2008, authorized the Wichita district to issue up to $370 million in bonds for construction, demolition, upgrades, repairs and improvements to a variety of facilities. It did not name any specific projects or a deadline for construction.

Such general ballot language is common for bond issues in large districts, said Dale Dennis, the state’s deputy education commissioner.

In smaller districts, ballot measures can more narrowly define the scope of bond work, Dennis said. Bond funds approved to build a new middle school, for instance, could not be used to build a football stadium at the high school.

Had Wichita – the state’s largest school district with nearly 50,000 students – listed each of its proposed projects, including new schools, storm shelters, athletic and fine-arts facilities and classrooms, “the ballot question would be pages long,” Dennis said.

Allison said districts need the flexibility to alter or move bond projects. “A lot can happen over time and as we’ve seen, a lot can change,” he said.

Last year, board members voted to put bond projects on hold. Since then they have moved forward with more than half the projects, though many have been scaled back in places.

The move delayed some long-awaited projects, including a new high school in southeast Wichita that was planned to open in 2013. The board bought land near the corner of 143rd East and Pawnee – a $16 million K-8 school will open at the same site this fall – but recently leased the high school land to a farmer.

While many have focused on unrealized elements of the bond issue, district officials point to projects completed and promises kept.

Among them: Ortiz Elementary School, which will relieve overcrowding at Cloud Elementary in north Wichita; a new K-8 school in southeast Wichita; another elementary to relieve crowding in south Wichita; FEMA-approved storm shelters already built or planned at every school; and dozens of auditoriums, libraries, cafeterias, fine-arts suites, athletics facilities and classroom additions.

Allison said the district has sold $320 million in bonds to take advantage of low interest rates or federal stimulus programs. The last $50 million authorized by voters could be “delayed indefinitely,” he said.

“There’s no clock ticking on that,” Allison said.

Different picture at Heights High School

In many ways, Heights High School, at 53rd Street North and Hillside, was a poster school for the 2008 bond campaign.

That year, the school was beyond its 1,600-student capacity and growing. Officials pointed to housing additions sprouting up in Bel Aire and projected that enrollment would climb to 2,000 students or more by 2012.

“Our hallways are literally elbow-to-elbow, wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling students during passing periods,” principal Bruce Deterding said in 2010. “We are cramped for space every place we turn in this building.”

This year, according to district leaders, it’s a different picture.

Heights is down to 1,549 students, about 80 fewer than when the bond issue passed. Allison points to figures that show housing starts dropped more than 60 percent since 2008, a result of the recession.

Meanwhile, the bond funneled more than $17 million in additions and renovations to Heights, including a new gym, auditorium, classrooms and common space. About 10 teachers still move among several classrooms instead of having rooms of their own. But that’s not all bad, Allison said.

“Folks sometimes use ‘teacher on a cart’ as an example of a building being overcrowded,” he said. “The other way to look at that is how efficiently you’re using the space you have available.”

Earlier this week, board member Lanora Nolan pointed to enrollment projections that showed Heights, North and other high schools at or near capacity and asked whether proposed tweaks to attendance boundaries would really help.

“When you think about high school capacities, that number can fluctuate depending on how you figure the capacity,” Allison said. “That number is a little fluid.”

Feeling betrayed

People who live near schools slated to close under the proposed boundary plan or who have children at those schools say the closures are a betrayal of voters’ trust.

The five schools on the list were slated to receive more than $5 million in improvements from the bond issue. Next year, if Allison’s boundary plan is approved, they’ll sit vacant.

Ty Lasher, city manager of Bel Aire, said residents of that town say a proposal to open a new high school as a magnet and a K-8 as an elementary is “a concern and a disappointment.”

That city spent about $500,000 to widen and pave roads and run sewer lines to the new schools. It named a new street “Lycee,” which is French for secondary school.

“We happily made that investment because we were going to get neighborhood schools that would relieve overcrowding and bring growth,” Lasher said. “That was the plan.”

Now a 30-home subdivision is under construction across the street from the new high school, and a 48-unit apartment complex is going up nearby. Lasher said he and other Bel Aire residents hope the district will consider making the high school a comprehensive school and expanding the elementary to a K-8 school over time.

Allison said “anything’s on the table,” and schools or boundaries could change again in the future.

“None of us have crystal balls, and I know they’re in a difficult situation,” Lasher said. “Like everyone else, we’re just saying to the school district, ‘Think this through. Make sure that we are all understanding what can happen.’ ”

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