March 5, 2012

Wichita school board votes to close five schools, approves new boundaries

The Wichita school board voted unanimously Monday to close five schools, a decision one board member described as “heartbreaking.”

The Wichita school board voted unanimously Monday to close five schools, a decision one board member described as “heartbreaking.”

Lanora Nolan said she and her colleagues had no choice but to close the schools — four elementaries and Northeast Magnet High School — because of reductions in state per-pupil funding over the past four years.

“It’s not a simple economic issue. It is gut-wrenching,” Nolan said. “It is heartbreaking that we find ourselves even in this position.”

The vote followed emotional testimony and an Occupy Wichita-style disruption in the North High lecture hall, where several people stood and shouted in unison at board members before being ushered out by police and security officers.

Board members left the room during the outburst. They came back after a brief break to continue their discussion and vote on school closings.

The closings are part of a broader boundary plan that board members also approved unanimously Monday. The plan will close Northeast Magnet at 17th and Chautauqua and move its program to a new school being built in Bel Aire. Four elementary schools also will close for good this spring: Bryant, Emerson, Lincoln and Mueller.

Seventeen speakers addressed the board during the hearing. Most argued that new, bigger schools being built as part of a $370 million bond issue aren’t better than older, smaller neighborhood schools.

Megan Pfingsten, a parent of an Emerson student, broke down in tears.

“This isn’t about politics,” Pfingsten said. “This is about the future of my 6-year-old baby girl. … Her home is being taken away.

“Who really cares if the schools are new if they’re not better for our children?”

Charity Chapman, another Emerson parent, said she planned to pull her four children out of the Wichita district.

“It’s not a choice I wanted to make,” she said. “It’s a choice you’re forcing me into. You’re pushing me out the door.”

Many audience members gave sign-language applause to speakers during the hearing, silently raising their arms and wiggling their fingers.

Board president Betty Arnold stopped the meeting several times to warn protesters that outbursts and other displays, including waving, wouldn’t be tolerated.

Protesters expelled

After the final speaker, several people in the audience stood up and shouted in unison:

“We the people stand united in solidarity against closing our schools,” they said, “and demand the Kansas budget surplus be used to fund education.”

The protesters, many of them members of the Occupy Wichita movement, echoed one another:

“This process has not been transparent,” they shouted. “You ignore the will of the people. You remain intent on destroying our communities. Vote no to closing our schools!”

Board members and Superintendent John Allison say closing schools is necessary in order to open and operate five new schools being built as part of the bond issue.

Officers – aided by board member Jeff Davis, who is a Wichita police sergeant – ushered protesters out of the lecture hall and then outside, where many continued to shout, “Whose school? Our school!”

After the board’s unanimous vote, several more protesters – parents and others – shouted “Shame on you!” and “This is unjust!” as they left the room.

Board member Lynn Rogers later said he understood some parents’ passion over the closures but added, “They stepped over the line. ... It’s not a very good example to set for your kids.”

Board member Sheril Logan said she voted in favor of the closures because, “I believe at this point, we have done our (due) diligence.

“I don’t think any of us are taking this decision lightly,” Logan said. “We have struggled and lost sleep over it."

Plan specifics

Board members also decided several specifics of the new boundary plan Monday, including grandfathering – how and whether students assigned to new schools will be allowed to continue attending their current schools.

Board members voted unanimously on each detail. They include:

•  All current high school students – ninth-, 10th- and 11th-graders – whose assignments change next year will be allowed to continue attending their current school if they choose. That could affect 379 students.
•  No middle or elementary school students will be grandfathered. They can apply for a special transfer to their current school; if accepted, transportation to their old school will not be provided.
•  Current Emerson students will be guaranteed enrollment at the new Lewis Open Magnet Elementary near 31st South and Seneca. They will not be required to apply through the magnet process.
•  Similarly, Bryant magnet students will get spots at Minneha Core Knowledge Magnet; Northeast Magnet students will have spots at the new high school; Isely students will have spots at the new northeast elementary at 53rd and Woodlawn; and Mueller students will be allowed to move with the program to the old Isely building.

The board also voted to reserve 25 percent of ninth-grade spots – about 50 seats – at the new Northeast Magnet High School for students from the Heights attendance boundary.

Last month Allison cautioned board members against such a policy, saying reserving seats at the magnet high school, which consistently has a waiting list, “definitely changes where we would be for equity for all students.”

Board members said the move answers concerns from some residents of Bel Aire and surrounding areas, who wanted a comprehensive high school to help ease crowding at Heights.

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