June 22, 2013

School board to vote on Southeast High’s future after months of debate

Wichita school leaders will decide Monday whether to expand and renovate Southeast High School or move the Golden Buffaloes to a new school building in the far reaches of the district.

Wichita school leaders will decide Monday whether to expand and renovate Southeast High School or move the Golden Buffaloes to a new school building in the far reaches of the district.

Another option – renovating Southeast and building a new, smaller high school, as proposed in the 2008 bond issue – remains on the table. But district leaders and board members say cuts in per-pupil state aid and capital outlay funding make that option unlikely.

Operating both schools would cost an extra $9.2 million annually, said Superintendent John Allison. That would mean budget cuts elsewhere that could result in larger class sizes, fewer advanced classes and program reductions districtwide.

“It’s just the reality,” Allison said. “There isn’t any business or individual that sees that type of cut to their personal budget and says, ‘You know what? The heck with it. We’re moving forward regardless.’ ”

Monday’s vote comes after months of debate and more than a year of speculation, which began after the district closed five schools, redrew attendance boundaries and put dozens of bond issue projects on hold.

A new southeast high school at 127th Street East and Pawnee – estimated to cost $54 million if it’s built to accommodate 1,800 students – is the largest remaining bond issue project.

A proposed expansion of Southeast High School, 903 S. Edgemoor, calls for acquiring several acres to the west of the school and building a gymnasium, swimming pool, tennis courts, ball fields and parking areas. Officials say it would cost $16 million to $23 million, depending on costs for land, demolition, drainage improvements and more.

“Living in a 1922 house, I know that what you start with and what you end up with – sometimes it (the budget) can grow,” said school board president Lynn Rogers. “What I’m struggling with is those two price tags.”

If the board opts to build a new Southeast High, Allison said, the building at Lincoln and Edgemoor could house district offices and technical education programs.

Tony Kinkel, president of Wichita Area Technical College, told board members last week that the college is “very interested” in moving some programs to the Southeast High building and possibly starting new ones.

“It’s very preliminary,” Kinkel said. “One of the things we like about this is, it’s three to four years out. … So it does give our board some time to do its due diligence on the feasibility of expanding and partnering with you.”

If the board decides to build a new high school, it would open in the fall of 2016, officials said. The district bought property for the school – 125 acres – for $1.56 million in 2010.

Renovations to Southeast likely would take longer because of time needed to acquire land; that project would be completed no sooner than fall 2017, Allison said.

Vote’s impact

Over the past several months a group of Wichita residents opposed to closing or moving Southeast High has launched a social media campaign, circulated petitions and spoken at board meetings, urging district leaders not to move the school.

State Rep. Jim Ward, a former Wichita school board member and City Council member, called the idea “a terrible decision for southeast Wichita and all core city neighborhoods,” saying the high school at Lincoln and Edgemoor is crucial to the future of the surrounding area.

“We can lead by example again, by saying to all of America: ‘We believe in neighborhood schools, and we believe in investing in low-income neighborhoods,’ ” said Don Landis, spokesman for Save Southeast.

Allison said none of the options being considered Monday would leave Southeast High vacant.

“If Southeast students were to move to a new high school … the current building at Lincoln and Edgemoor would remain a viable and occupied building,” Allison said.

Board member Barbara Fuller, whose district includes Southeast High and surrounding neighborhoods, will not attend Monday’s meeting because of a previous commitment.

“I support the area and all of that, but to say that I am absolutely, for sure voting to keep the current Southeast, I’m not there,” Fuller said.

Fuller said the potential for technical college programs at the school, with adult classes in the evening hours, might be even better for the surrounding neighborhood.

“If we can make this work, it’s truly going to enhance the community,” she said. “That brings a vitality to that school that we are not going to be able to do under the current financial situation.

“Obviously, it’s not a done deal. … Everything is kind of, ‘Can we make it work?’ ”

During community meetings about Southeast, some residents accused the district of reneging on promises made during the 2008 bond campaign. The plan called for two new comprehensive high schools to relieve crowding and make room for growth in the northeast and southeast quadrants of the district.

A new school in Bel Aire opened last year as Northeast Magnet High School. Under the current proposal, a new school at 127th Street East and Pawnee would house Southeast High, with the same attendance boundaries, staff and programs, although it would have a district football stadium and other modern athletic facilities.

“This crisis is not of our making,” said Rogers, the board president, adding that the district’s operating budget and capital outlay funds are nearly $60 million below expected levels.

“What we frequently hear is about promises being broken by the school board,” said board member Betty Arnold. “There was a promise made that education would be funded (by the Legislature). That promise was broken.”

Fuller said she worried that the district could be underestimating the cost of land near Southeast. The district would need up to 43 tracts, mostly duplexes and four-plexes, and “there is nothing definitive, any type of offer or conversations specifically around purchase,” Allison said last week.

“It’s kind of like we’re voting and praying that we can afford it,” Fuller said.

Rogers agreed, but said the board should act quickly to avoid rising construction costs and bond interest rates.

“We’re going to have to make a decision based on information that’s not solid,” he said.

“Whichever choice we make, we will start the wheels turning in terms of planning. … The vote really is kind of a starting point.”

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