April 6, 2013

Officials still deciding on fate of Southeast High School

Amid the speculation about Southeast High School – an increasingly contentious debate over whether district officials should renovate the current school or build a new one several miles away – Alicia McMurter thought folks could use an insider’s perspective.

Amid the speculation about Southeast High School – an increasingly contentious debate over whether district officials should renovate the current school or build a new one several miles away – Alicia McMurter thought folks could use an insider’s perspective.

“The public, they don’t get to see what we see,” said McMurter, a Southeast senior and editor of the school’s student newspaper, The Stampede.

“They get to see all of the data, all of the stuff about the surrounding neighborhoods and everything. But they don’t see the actual condition of our school. We have the power to show the public what is actually going on here.”

In a cover story for the most recent edition of The Stampede, McMurter and managing editor Christine Fuston report that while Southeast lingers on the district’s list of unfinished bond projects, the building’s condition “continues to deteriorate.”

The students recounted stories and shared photographs of cracked floors, warped doorways, broken toilets and leaking ceiling tiles.

The overall message to district leaders: Do something.

“It’s unfair to us that we’re the ones who have to suffer. … All the other schools have had work done, and we’re still waiting,” Fuston said.

On Monday, school board members will once again discuss options for Southeast and several other unfinished projects. Superintendent John Allison has recommended:

• Dropping projects altogether at five schools: Chisholm Life Skills Center, Greiffenstein/Wells Special Education Center, Levy Special Education Center, Metro-Meridian Alternative High School and Payne Elementary.
• Moving forward with bond work at Coleman and Hamilton middle schools and Woodland Elementary, expanding or scaling back projects as needed to adjust for changes since 2008.
• And keeping three projects – Little Early Childhood Center, Sowers Alternative High School and a $10 million technical education magnet program – on hold.

The board meeting is 5 p.m. Monday – an hour earlier than usual – at the North High lecture hall, 1437 N. Rochester.

If the board takes action on those projects, that would leave four still on the table: Caldwell Elementary, Robinson Middle School, Southeast High and the proposed new southeast quadrant high school.

Last week some lawmakers, neighborhood leaders and others voiced frustration over a growing sense that the district is leaning toward moving Southeast to a new, $54 million building at 127th St. East and Pawnee.

State Rep. Jim Ward, a former Wichita school board member, called the proposal “a betrayal of my vote in favor of the last bond issue.”

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.

The original bond plan, however, called for two new comprehensive high schools – one in the northeast quadrant and one in the southeast – along with significant expansions and upgrades to existing schools.

Now, school officials say, reductions in per-pupil state funding and capital outlay money means they can’t afford to staff and operate a new school, so they face a decision: renovate Southeast, or build new.

Ward, the state legislator who represents southeast Wichita, said new doesn’t mean better.

“If you built Southeast High School right where it’s at and made it a world-class institution, it could attract the kind of development that would make people stay,” he said. “This is more than numbers on a piece of paper.”

David Robbins, president of the Fabrique Neighborhood Association just east of Southeast High, said he hopes the board will weigh the benefits of a new school against potential drawbacks, including infrastructure costs, increased transportation costs and the possibility that some families will have a hard time traveling back and forth to the new school.

“They’re at a gallop. They’ve got the money to spend,” Robbins said of district leaders. “I’m just trying to ask a few questions because they have a social responsibility and have to weigh what they’re doing.”

Students seem to be struggling with the decision as well, even though most will likely graduate before either a new school or renovations are complete.

Fuston, the student newspaper’s managing editor, favors a new building.

“In orchestra and band, we recently went to Northeast (Magnet) for a contest, and we saw what an amazing facility they have. … I think Southeast wouldn’t get the justice it deserves” with the proposed renovations, she said.

McMurter, the editor, said she initially thought a new school would be better.

“But I know a lot of people who walk to school, and for them it would be a lot harder,” she said. “I feel like, if it were to move, a lot of people wouldn’t be able to do the after-school programs because they wouldn’t have ways to get to and from school.”

Either way, she said, the school needs more substantial improvements than just the new gym, ball fields, swimming pool and fine arts suite proposed in the bond plan.

“Our school was built in 1957, and there’s just stuff falling apart,” McMurter said. “If they were to stay, then they need to fix the actual school before they focus on new tennis courts, a new football stadium, new everything else.”

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