District's redesign may close Wichita schools

10/11/2011 12:00 AM

08/05/2014 5:05 PM

The Wichita school district will have to address major issues head-on when it sets new attendance boundaries, a consultant told board members Monday.

Some schools could close.

New schools slated to open next fall may sit empty.

Buildings designed as K-8 schools could open as K-5 elementaries instead.

Issues of diversity and equity, of magnets and neighborhood schools, of which elementary schools feed into which middle and high schools, of long-held traditions and modern updates — all will be on the agenda.

"How does the community want to respond to those elephants (in the room), those things that no one really wants to talk about?" said Rob Schwarz, president of RSP Associates.

Schwarz's firm, hired by the district to analyze data and help form boundary plans, presented "guiding principles" Monday for what will likely be a hotly debated process.

Projections show enrollment increasing districtwide but not evenly, Schwarz said. Schools such as Cloud Elementary in north Wichita, Lawrence Elementary to the west and Seltzer Elementary in the southeast quadrant are beyond capacity and expected to grow. Others have fewer students than years past.

"Regardless of the new buildings, there's an imbalance of enrollment at different places of your district," Schwarz told board members.

For the first time publicly, Superintendent John Allison acknowledged that shifting boundaries could prompt the closing of one or more schools.

"When we look at finances, I don't think this comes as any surprise to anybody," Allison said.

"One of the factors that we look at has to be... efficiencies," he said. "Is there a potential... to close a school or merge a school in an effort to protect the resources, staffing, finances, those aspects?"

District leaders said cuts in state funding mean some of the promises of a $370 million bond issue passed in 2008 — including new schools, additions, updates and reduced class sizes — are no longer possible.

"The troubling part is that 2008 goal, and that our reality has changed," Allison said.

Consultants said they met with district leaders over two days recently to compile a list of factors that should be addressed in new boundary proposals. They include closing schools, opening new schools, diversity, feeder patterns, grade configurations (such as K-8 vs. K-5), magnet schools and projected enrollment.

Schwarz said the list will guide a series of "supposals" — proposed boundary lines based on specific factors — that will evolve into a larger plan. Consultants will refer to demographic trends, enrollment data, economic conditions, changes in the housing market and more.

Residents "need to know this was not something that was done haphazardly," Schwarz said. "There's actually a science behind it."

A "superintendent's focus group" is set to convene next week and meet at least monthly to craft boundary options. Allison said he will appoint the group of about 50 people.

Four public forums scheduled in January — Jan. 11, 12, 18 and 19 — will give the public a chance to see boundary proposals in detail and offer feedback.

The focus group will reconvene after those meetings to draft a final proposal, which will be presented to the school board Feb. 13.

Board president Betty Arnold said the boundary change process is "overwhelming," and that it will be difficult to factor everyone's concerns into the discussion.

Closing schools, in particular, is "going to be a huge concern, because none of us likes to think of having to close a school," Arnold said.

Schwarz, the consultant, urged board members to make the process "as transparent as possible."

"We really want the community to see what's being discussed so they can provide feedback," he said. "We want them to be a part of what we're working on."

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