As Wichita school district officials think about doing what not long ago seemed unthinkable – closing Southeast High School and moving its 1,600 students elsewhere – they must give parents and the community ample opportunity to speak on any possible closing, listen to what they say, then do everything in their power to act accordingly.
Distrust is building along with suspense over the board’s plans for Southeast, which is caught in the pinch between the 2008 bond issue and the state’s more recent school funding cuts.
The problem is this: Because the district has seen the state slash base per-pupil funding and capital outlay equalization dollars, the board risks building the needed 5A high school at 127th Street East and Pawnee and then lacking the dollars to staff and operate it. The bond issue also included a $12 million expansion and renovation of Southeast, where $1.3 million already has been spent on an auditorium upgrade, a new track and all-weather turf for a practice field.
There are insufficient funds to do everything, so there has been talk of closing the 56-year-old Southeast High as a school and retooling it into a city-county law enforcement training center or the district’s headquarters. (Only some of the enrollment could fit in the smaller new far-southeast school.)
If Southeast must close, it certainly would be a benefit to have the facility productive rather than empty and decaying. But its value to the neighborhood and its families is as a proud comprehensive high school, and part of a vast educational complex that includes Caldwell Elementary and Curtis Middle School. It would be a shame if reaching ninth grade in that urban, lower-income neighborhood suddenly meant climbing onto a bus and traveling to the city’s edge for school.
Unfortunately, the prospect of closing Southeast and busing its kids out of the neighborhood also fits the well-established pattern in official Wichita of favoring new development on the city limits.
When two speakers warned the school board last week that closing Southeast would “decimate” and “devastate” the area around Lincoln and Edgemoor, board president Lynn Rogers responded that “no decision has been made to move any schools” and “we’re in the beginning stages.”
That recalled memories of last year’s process to change boundaries and close five schools, when the board kept saying that no decisions had been made – right up until they were made in what looked like a rubber-stamping of a consultant’s plan. Back then, speakers before the board were handled roughly, and board members didn’t do a very good job of debating the proposals and sharing their thinking at the board table. They need to do better this time, by opening up the process for public input at meetings and otherwise.
Must Southeast close? That really is the question for the board as it tries to reconcile its promises to voters with the Legislature’s broken promises to the district. Superintendent John Allison and school board members must answer the question with care, showing respect for both the school’s history and the neighborhood’s future.