The Wichita school board faces an extremely difficult decision Monday as it votes on whether to renovate Southeast High School or build a new school in far-southeast Wichita. There are pros and cons to each option, and some people will be upset no matter what the board decides.
The Eagle editorial board has also struggled with which option is best. We lean slightly toward the new school, because it would be the best facility and is the option most students prefer. But we share the concerns of those worried about abandoning the neighborhood.
The ideal still would be to stick to the 2008 bond plan, which was a response to population growth and facilities needs. That would mean fully renovating 56-year-old Southeast at Lincoln and Edgemoor (in addition to the $1.3 million already spent on an auditorium upgrade, a new track and turf for a practice field) and building a smaller new high school at 127th Street East and Pawnee.
But now that the meetings have been held, the speakers have been heard, and the comments have been collected, it’s clear that best option is imprudent, if not impossible.
While the bond issue has enabled $300 million in improvements across the district in recent years, state school-finance decisions have necessitated more than $60 million in budget cuts in the district. The board and superintendent John Allison must balance the promises of the bond plan with their ability to operate and maintain all the district’s facilities going forward.
Deferring or scrapping the new school while upgrading Southeast is not as obvious or affordable an alternative as it would seem, given the limited property available for expansion and the costs of acquiring it. The warnings that closing Southeast would devastate the community have lost their potency, what with the dueling proposals for the complex to be used for Wichita Area Technical College programs or USD 259 administrative offices.
And for all the sincere and strong emotion expressed on behalf of the current Southeast by neighbors and graduates, it is less highly regarded by the parents and students it’s intended to serve. Nearly a third of the 2,100 students who live within the Southeast boundaries opt out in favor of private schools, e-schools, home schooling or other public schools – the highest transfer rate among city high schools. Whatever the reason, the surest fix is a new comprehensive $54 million facility with all the amenities – and none of the current building’s shortcomings.
It was telling that the managing editor of Southeast’s student newspaper advocated for a new building, talking to The Eagle about “what an amazing facility” the new Northeast Magnet High School is and worrying that “Southeast wouldn’t get the justice it deserves” with the proposed renovations. In another article, a mother of a Southeast grad warned about letting “sentimentality” ruin “what could be a first-class school” at the new site.
The district has done a good job of presenting the options and sounding out the public to this point. Whatever decision the board makes Monday, it will help build community understanding, if not 100 percent acceptance, if the board members explain the thinking behind their votes.
Having examined the options and assessed the arguments, the board must try to win this no-win situation created by state leaders who say they value K-12 schools and higher education but keep ducking their responsibility to fund them. The right choice will make sense not only now but decades from now.