Editor's note: An earlier version of this story contained incorrect square footage figures for Emerson and Blackbear schools.
Officials with a local nonprofit learning center say they want to buy one of five vacant Wichita school buildings – but the district isn’t selling.
Jeanine Phillips, executive director of the Fundamental Learning Center, said her school has offered the Wichita school district $350,000 for either the former Emerson Elementary, near 13th and Meridian, or the former Blackbear Bosin Academy, near 13th and Woodlawn.
The center wants to expand its Right Literacy Academy, an intensive reading program for kids with dyslexia and other learning disabilities, and says either school would be perfect.
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“This has been a yearlong quest,” Phillips said. “We toured the schools many times, and there was never any kind of indication to us that they weren’t on the market or available for sale.”
She said her group would prefer Emerson but made the offer for either school because they want to move quickly to secure a new building and move in before next school year.
Last week, a real estate broker working on behalf of the Fundamental Learning Center received a letter from Tom Powell, the district’s legal counsel, saying the district isn’t interested in selling either property.
“The District has not made a decision as to what is the best future use of these properties,” Powell wrote.
On Monday evening, several supporters of the learning center plan to urge school board members to reconsider selling one of the district’s vacant buildings to the center, which is outgrowing its current space in the Parklane Shopping Center at Lincoln and Oliver.
“We’re at the point where our kiddos could use a bigger building,” said Kelly Kuhn, whose son, Luke, attends the Right Literacy Academy.
“This program does wonderful things for kids. I think if everybody just works together, a partnership could be created that would really serve the children of this area.”
The Wichita district owns five school buildings that are not being used:
▪ Blackbear Bosin Academy (previously Price Elementary), 6123 E. 11th St., closed in 2011 as part of cost-cutting measures.
▪ Emerson Elementary, 2330 W. 15th St., closed in 2012 as part of a new attendance boundary plan.
▪ Longfellow Elementary, 2116 S. Main, closed in 1996 as a cost-cutting measure, but the district has kept it for emergencies. When an explosion damaged Marshall Middle School in 2004, officials relocated about 400 students to Longfellow for classes.
▪ Metro-Boulevard Alternative High School, 751 George Washington Blvd., closed in 2012 because of structural concerns. Its students were relocated to the former Northeast Magnet High School, 1847 N. Chautauqua.
District spokeswoman Wendy Johnson said none of the buildings is listed for sale.
“We need to consider what we have, how it will be used most wisely to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars, and what we may choose to sell,” she said. “That analysis hasn’t been completed, and until it is, we don’t intend to list or sell any of those properties.”
“Simply because someone may want to buy a building does not mean that it is for sale,” Johnson said.
When district leaders approved a new boundary plan in 2012 that closed several schools, many residents wondered what would happen to those properties and others left vacant by previous closings.
Some worried the empty schools would become, at best, a drain on the district’s already strapped budget. At worst, they said, vacant school buildings can become neighborhood eyesores.
Since then, the district has sold some properties and maintained the rest.
▪ The former Booth Early Childhood Center, 5920 E. Mount Vernon, which closed in 2003, was sold at auction in July 2012 to Hope International Fellowship, which paid $83,000 for it.
▪ In April 2013, the former Lincoln Elementary, 1210 S. Topeka, was sold to the Child Advocacy Center of Sedgwick County for $260,000.
▪ And in December, school board members approved the sale of the district’s downtown administration building to developer David Burk, who plans to turn the building into loft apartments. Burk paid $1.2 million.
Phillips, the Fundamental Learning Center director, said she is “disappointed and confused” by what seems to be a sudden change by district officials.
The center’s major donors and board members had hoped to close on a school building in early June, she said. If the district rejects their offer, they’ll have to look elsewhere for space.
“I thought we’d take a liability off their plate, take care of a building they obviously don’t need anymore,” she said. “Either of those buildings would be great for us.”
The former Emerson Elementary, built in 1954, received more than $1.5 million worth of bond issue upgrades in 2004, including a new multipurpose room, kitchen and classroom.
The building, which is 25,512 square feet and sits on more than seven acres, was last appraised at $978,830, according to Sedgwick County tax records.
The former Blackbear Bosin, built in 1957, was last appraised at $359,550, according to tax records. It is 22,330 square feet and sits on 6.7 acres.
Phillips said her group would prefer Emerson and that its offer is reasonable for either school, considering what other vacant schools have sold for recently.
The former Mueller Elementary, for example, was appraised at $1.7 million when it was first auctioned in February 2013. The appraisal later fell by 78 percent, to $373,100, after officials conducted a review of the property and discovered that the school had closed.
“The $1.7 million was the value for a fully functional and operating elementary school,” Amanda Matthews, spokeswoman for the Sedgwick County appraiser’s office, explained at the time.
Room to grow
Right Literacy Academy, an arm of the Fundamental Learning Center that launched last fall, has 20 students this year. Based on its waiting list, the school could at least double its enrollment next year, Phillips said.
She described the program as an “intensive teaching lab” for students in kindergarten through third grade who have had trouble learning to read. It is designed as a full-time but short-term intervention, after which students return to their regular public or private schools.
“We teach them to read and write and spell and get them back into school,” Phillips said. “Our goal is no more than 24 months. … So far it’s working beautifully for these kids. We’re making a difference.”
Since it was founded 15 years ago as a nonprofit educational resource center, the Fundamental Learning Center has operated out of retail office space inside the shopping center at Lincoln and Oliver.
The center offers assessments for children 5 to 18 to look for literacy “red flags” that may indicate learning difficulties. Its staff does not diagnose dyslexia, attention-deficit disorder or other learning disabilities but offers referrals to psychologists as well as literacy tutoring and other services.
In recent years, Phillips has been an outspoken advocate for school choice measures, including vouchers and charter schools, saying public school teachers often don’t have adequate time or resources to help students with severe learning disabilities.