The USD 259 school board was more conflicted in deciding to build a new $54 million Southeast High School in far-southeast Wichita than Monday’s 6-0 vote would indicate. But as the board weighed how to finish the 2008 bond issue despite $60 million in recent state funding cuts, what clearly mattered most was what would serve future Southeast students best. That will be an up-to-date school as spacious and comprehensive as any other in USD 259.
The chosen course is no less controversial than last year’s school closings. But the board did a better job this time in sounding out the community in meetings and online over the past few months. Board president Lynn Rogers proved a skilled moderator Monday night, handling an outburst and kazoo-accompanied walkout by opponents while encouraging board members to take the time (45 minutes total) to share their reasoning.
In the end, agree or disagree, the crowd had a good sense of why the board opted to build a new school rather than renovate the current Southeast at Lincoln and Edgemoor, and of the unacceptable districtwide cuts that would have been needed to deliver on the bond plan’s promise of both an upgraded Southeast and a smaller new high school at 127th Street East and Pawnee.
The uncertainty of land acquisition needed to expand the current Southeast also came into focus, with board members uncomfortable about the lack of serious negotiations with a key landowner and the prospect of exercising eminent domain. The potential to partner with Wichita Area Technical College on a new use for the current Southeast, where the district’s administrative offices also would go, strengthens the decision. To its credit, the board has no intention of letting the school become an empty and decaying eyesore.
The community’s trust in the district and school board has suffered from the school closings last year and the Southeast decision. Public comments Monday questioning the board’s commitment to inner-city schools, and bitterly bringing up a reference to Southeast as a “ghetto school,” underscore the board’s responsibility to watchdog equity across the district, and to meet the goals of the historic 2008 decision to end forced busing for desegregation. Five years later, it is disappointing that the district has been unable to do away with the “assigned attendance area” and that children within those predominantly African-American neighborhoods still attend seven high schools and 10 middle schools.
Though they are accountable for a decision that will affect 1,800 students when the new Southeast opens in 2016, board members were justified in blaming the Legislature and Gov. Sam Brownback. If the state weren’t dodging its constitutional mandate to fund public schools suitably, the Wichita district wouldn’t be falling short of its bond promises.