A battle over new school boundaries and the proposed closure of five Wichita schools likely will end tonight.
The school board is expected to vote on a plan that would open five new schools, close five others, move several magnet programs and redraw some lines that dictate which schools students attend.
Superintendent John Allison says the closures and reassignments would affect about 10 percent of the district, or 5,000 students.
The issue has been emotional, with some parents fighting fiercely to save their small neighborhood schools and others defending the notion that newer, bigger schools make economic sense.
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“We have to look at what is best for the district,” said board president Betty Arnold.
“We have been listening to the parents, and we are just trying to do the best we can with the hand we were dealt.”
Allison says a loss of more than $50 million in state aid per pupil over the past four years means the district can’t afford to staff new schools and keep them running without closing others.
Five schools, including a new high school in Bel Aire, are under construction as part of a $370 million bond issue voters approved in 2008. Leaving them vacant could cost the district up to $32 million in additional bond interest, a penalty of the federally subsidized bonds used to build the schools, Allison said.
His plan calls for closing four elementary schools: Bryant, Emerson, Lincoln and Mueller. It also would close Northeast Magnet High School, 1847 N. Chautauqua, and move the program to the new high school at 53rd North and Rock Road.
Angela Steeby, a parent at Bryant Elementary, has spent the past two months calling and e-mailing board members, sharing information that she says shows why the west Wichita school should stay open.
She points to its location in the heart of the city’s Orchard Park neighborhood, its newly renovated special-education wing, its proximity to Hadley Middle School and its 400-student-plus enrollment.
“When you look at the facts, none of this makes sense,” Steeby said. “This is more than just being a mad parent.”
RSP & Associates, a Kansas City-area consulting firm hired by the district, helped develop the new boundary plan and the list of proposed closures. An advisory group appointed by the superintendent weighed in on draft proposals, and members of the public raised questions and concerns during a series of forums in January.
Allison said the proposal board members will consider tonight was “absolutely influenced by the feedback we had from the community.”
“You saw some schools start on the list and others finish on the list, and that was all part of working through that process,” he said.
“We had to look at being able to shift resources (to new school buildings), which was going to involve some closings,” Allison said. “We looked at building capacity, programs, needs in the area, long-term projections. All those pieces go into the final recommendation.”
Steeby and other opponents of the closures say they’re trying to remain hopeful until the board’s final vote, but the decision seems imminent.
So far board members have spoken about the closures only generally and collectively. At the board table, at least, they haven’t addressed the pros and cons of each closure or weighed one school against another.
“I’m 99 percent sure it will happen” as proposed, Steeby said. “We kind of feel like they’re not listening and made up their minds a long time ago.”
‘Yes, we hear you’
Arnold, the board president, said she is bothered by accusations that the district is acting too quickly on boundaries or ignoring public input.
During last week’s meeting she stopped the proceedings several times to caution speakers to stay on point and to “please be respectful to this board.”
At one point, when audience members applauded, Arnold said:
“If we need to clear the room, we will clear the room. This board meeting is being held in public, but it is not for the public or of the public, and I hope you understand that.”
Several parents left the meeting frustrated and angry, saying Arnold unfairly shut down opposing viewpoints.
Arnold said later that she had followed established district guidelines for running efficient, orderly meetings. Tonight’s public hearing will follow the same format.
She added that board members have met with constituents and responded to countless calls and e-mails since the first boundary draft was presented in November.
“There’s this impression from a small group of parents that the school board isn’t hearing concerns. All I can say is, ‘Yes, we hear you,’ ” Arnold said.
“But this is the bottom line: If it’s not Emerson, if it’s not Bryant, if it’s not Mueller or Northeast Magnet or Lincoln, it will be five other schools.
“And although the players would change, I promise you we would end up having the same conversation with a different group of parents who feel equally as passionate about their schools.”
Allison, the superintendent, said that although “nobody wants to close schools,” he feels confident that the proposed plan is best for the district as a whole.
“There are never perfect solutions, and you know that it’s going to be emotional,” Allison said.
“As folks look at it and they don’t like what a proposal entails, they’re going to question the process, question the information and then ultimately question the people involved. That’s just part of the process.”
Set in motion
Tonight’s vote will set several aspects of the new boundary plan in motion.
The district’s Choices Fair on Thursday, an event where families learn about magnet schools and other education options, will feature information based on the new plan. The application deadline for most magnet schools is March 14.
Board members will discuss and possibly decide other aspects of the plan tonight, including grandfathering, special transfers and transportation.
They also will consider a plan to reserve 25 percent of ninth-grade spots at Northeast Magnet High School for students who live in the Heights attendance boundary — a nod to Bel Aire residents who are upset the new building will not open as a comprehensive high school.
Bel Aire leaders also asked the district to consider adding grades to a proposed elementary at 53rd North and Woodlawn, one grade each year, until it becomes a K-8, as proposed in the bond plan.
According to Allison’s proposal, Mueller’s aerospace and engineering magnet program would move to the Isely building, 2500 E. 18th St. Isely Traditional Magnet would move to the new school in Bel Aire and become a neighborhood magnet.
Allison said teachers, administrators and other district employees will work hard in coming weeks to “extend a hand to those that will be impacted by change” at schools slated for closure and elsewhere.
“Our focus needs to be: How do we make sure we finish the year as we started — on a strong note.”