Will Wichita district be able to staff its new schools?

When the construction equipment rolls away a year from now, Wichita's newest high school will have modern classrooms, a glass-walled library, a gym with an indoor walking track, an auditorium, a fine-arts suite, a wrestling room and a swimming pool.

Will it have students? That's still unclear.

Faced with substantial reductions in state aid and expecting worse next year, several district leaders say some of the five new schools going up as part of a $370 million bond issue could sit idle after they're built.

Board members say there's no guarantee a $31 million high school at 53rd North and Rock Road will open as scheduled in fall 2012, despite being built to relieve packed hallways at Heights High School and accommodate growth in and around Bel Aire.

"If we have to complete a project and have the school sit without populating it... it's my understanding that we're open to doing that," said board member Lanora Nolan.

"We would not open a school without a well-thought-out plan and proper preparation to do so. That I feel very confident in," she said. "And those conversations have not begun yet."

Wichita's superintendent and board members aren't saying the new high school in Bel Aire won't open as scheduled next year. But they're also not saying it will.

Scaling back

In January the board voted to pause and study 67 projects that are part of the bond issue voters approved in 2008. Projected losses of more than $63 million in state matching funds and millions more in federal funds for storm shelters meant "everything is on the table," said superintendent John Allison.

Since then, six bond projects have been approved for construction and eight more are out for bids. Several of those were scaled back from original plans. More than 30, including a new high school in southeast Wichita, are on indefinite hold.

Martin Libhart, the district's chief of operations, said classroom additions designed to reduce class sizes will not be built because "we can't fund additional teachers to staff them right now."

It's unclear exactly how many classrooms will be scrapped districtwide. Since February, more than half the projects approved by the board have been scaled back from initial proposals.

Anderson Elementary School, for example, was slated for nine new classrooms in the 2008 bond issue plan. It will get four.

Colvin Elementary School was supposed to get six new classrooms that would be fortified as a storm shelter. Instead, the school will get a multipurpose room that will serve as its shelter.

"Where we have specific programs in place, specific physical needs for classrooms, we have proceeded with those," said Kenton Cox, bond plan manager with Schaefer Johnson Cox Frey Architecture. "Those primarily for class-size reduction... they've determined those aren't moving forward now."

The tweaks and scale-backs prompt a larger question: If the district can't afford to staff additional classrooms here and there, how will it staff five new schools — a high school, two K-8s and two elementaries — by next year?

"It's going to be difficult," Allison said. "When you look at the economic aspects around which the bond plan was considered, that's changed dramatically.

"Things appear to be on track right now, but there's a full year" between now and the projected opening dates, he said. "Who knows what could happen?"

Problems nationwide

Should Wichita delay the opening of new schools, it wouldn't be the only district in the country to do so.

Last month in Riverside, Calif., cash-strapped district officials said they didn't have the money to turn on the lights or hire staff for a new high school slated to open this fall. They voted to delay the opening of the new $105 million Hillcrest High School for at least a year, but will open its high-tech library, swimming pool and tennis courts to the public.

Not opening the school is expected to save the California district about $3 million next year, according to the Los Angeles Times. But it will spend $1 million to secure and maintain the empty campus.

Wichita board members said they'll consider all options, including closing schools, shifting boundaries and relocating teachers, to ensure the district operates as efficiently as possible and makes good on its promises. But if funding cuts continue, that could be difficult.

"It's a concern," said board president Connie Dietz. "There will have to be some very serious discussions about how we plan to staff these new buildings.

"We do not have any answers right now, but we definitely know the question."

Time is running out

A crucial component of any new plan will be the results of a demographic study being commissioned by Olathe-based RSP & Associates, an educational consulting group. The company has analyzed housing patterns, projected enrollment, socioeconomic data and school capacities and is expected to present its findings to Wichita officials this summer.

That study will guide how the district redraws school attendance boundaries, as well as when and how new schools will open.

The new high school — one of two promised as part of the 2008 bond issue — is expected to open with about 800 students but could grow to 1,200. Some likely would come from nearby Heights High and its feeder schools, since the school is being built to relieve crowding there.

But board members have decided little else about the new school. Some say it could open with ninth- and tenth-graders and grow from there, which would allow staff to be phased in over time. Other options include starting it without sports or other special programs, or making it a magnet school.

Part of the challenge with a new high school, Allison said, is that it will require more teachers, administrators and other staff than can easily be shifted from other schools.

"Some teachers would follow the students, but a portion of any new building, particularly a high school, is going to be new staff," he said.

"When you're talking about administrators, upper-level science teachers, some of those specialists... you're going to have some duplication."

Whatever the case, leaders acknowledge they'll have to decide something soon. The last time the district opened a new school — Gordon Parks Academy, a K-8 school near 25th and Grove — officials announced its name, principal and attendance boundaries more than 10 months in advance.

But that was before a recession that saddled the state with deficits and heralded three consecutive years of cuts to education funding. When he proposed re-evaluating bond issue projects earlier this year, Allison told board members the district had "fallen off a cliff" funding-wise, and that building new schools would not be nearly so challenging as staffing and running them.

Though many have questioned the timing of building new schools, the district is bound by law to use bond money for construction and renovation projects.

About $320 million in bonds already have been sold to take advantage of low interest rates or bond instruments available through federal stimulus programs. Only $177 million of those bonds have been spent or are slated for construction contracts. About $143 million are unencumbered, Allison said, but redeeming them could be impossible or extremely costly.

The final $50 million in bonds have yet to be sold and could be "delayed indefinitely," Allison said.

So, too, could the opening of schools built with bond money. Some board members said the option is a "worst-case scenario," but one they may have to consider.

"What are the consequences if we don't open them?... That's one of the things we have to talk about," said Lynn Rogers.

"When we passed the bond issue we had the need for all these buildings, and we still have that need. That hasn't gone away," he said.

"It's a situation where the community needs to understand that it's not because of a lack of planning or bad planning in the bond issue. We had the funds, we knew we were going to get funding, and that rug got pulled out from underneath us."

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