November 15, 2012

Four years after bond issue, Wichita school projects wait

More than four years after voters passed a $370 million bond issue to improve and expand Wichita schools, it’s still unclear what will happen with several key parts of the plan.

More than four years after voters passed a $370 million bond issue to improve and expand Wichita schools, it’s still unclear what will happen with several key parts of the plan.

Nearly 20 bond projects, including a proposed new high school in southeast Wichita and a technical-education magnet program, are still on hold and awaiting board action.

Superintendent John Allison said he plans to bring remaining projects before the board within the next few months to decide whether and how to move forward.

“The landscape has changed dramatically since 2008,” Allison said. “We need to take another look at the complete picture, and not piecemeal it.”

One plan leaders likely will consider: forgoing a proposed expansion of Southeast High School in favor of building a new, larger Southeast High at 127th Street East and Pawnee.

“We’ll be looking at the pros and cons of both, and the board has to weigh that,” Allison said. “That would all be part of the larger discussion. That’s what we have to decide.”

Nearly two years ago, the board voted to put 67 bond projects on hold as they grappled with losses of about $4.5 million a year in capital outlay money from the state and millions more in federal funds for storm shelters.

Since then, 48 projects have been approved for construction or are in the planning stages. Many were scaled back from original plans. Nineteen, including a new high school and technical-education magnet school, are on indefinite hold.

‘Bond-issue creep’

According to recent data from Schaefer Johnson Cox Frey, the district’s bond manager, the 2008 bond plan is about $4.1 million under budget.

The largest savings came from some of the largest and earliest projects bid and built: The new Northeast Magnet High School, the new Isely Elementary and Christa McAuliffe Academy, a new K-8 in southeast Wichita, each ended about $3.5 million under budget.

But district leaders and bond officials worry about so-called “bond-issue creep,” as construction costs rise and bids come in higher than originally planned.

An addition at South High School, for example, will cost nearly $3.9 million more than projected. One at Heights High is more than $3.1 million over budget, projects at North and East High are about $2 million over, and an expansion at West High is about $1.5 million in the red.

Last week, board members approved a $3.5 million project for Pleasant Valley Elementary that will be about 7 percent over budget, officials said.

“We’re beginning to see some of the cost creep,” Allison said. “That’s why the board has been very focused on not allowing” many unplanned extras to be added to bond projects.

At East High, for instance, district officials cut new dressing rooms out of the school’s bond project when East’s fine arts addition went over budget, prompting a booster club to launch a fundraising drive to pay for them.

“For the first couple years we were about the only construction projects in the region, and that worked in our favor,” Allison said. “Now we’re starting to see some escalation which has to be part of the discussion.”

New Southeast High?

School board president Lynn Rogers would not say whether he favors moving forward with a new high school on land the district owns near 127th Street East and Pawnee, the proposed expansion at the current Southeast High, or both.

But he and other officials said they worry about the cost of acquiring the property needed to build a new gymnasium and other amenities at Southeast, which sits at Lincoln and Edgemoor. They faced similar challenges at landlocked North High, where they spent two years and more than $2.7 million to acquire dozens of properties, several through eminent domain.

“What we’ve got to talk about really soon is, ‘Where do we stand?’ ” Rogers said. “What was the original plan, and what can we afford?”

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

But bond rates are at all-time lows, he said, so “We’ll have to weigh the financing advantages and evaluate all the options there.”

Allison said he gets frustrated when residents claim the district hasn’t met its bond issue promises. So far the district has opened five new schools and dozens of storm shelters, auditoriums, libraries, athletics facilities and classrooms.

“You hear from people, ‘You haven’t accomplished anything,’ and that’s just not true,” he said. “It’s a marathon, not a sprint, and we’ve been saying that all along.

“One of the things I’ll encourage the board, as we review, is to look at each of these projects and highlight for the community: This is what was projected for this building, for this community, and this is what we’ve done.”

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