Wichita school board votes to condemn properties near North High

The Wichita school board on Monday unanimously approved the first step of a plan to condemn 10 properties near North High School to expand athletic facilities at the school.

The resolution declared it necessary to condemn the 10 properties – mostly single-family homes or duplexes – along with another tract near Pleasant Valley Elementary School, because negotiations to buy the land from property owners have been unsuccessful.

The move is the first step under the district’s power of eminent domain to acquire land from unwilling sellers or absentee property owners.

“We’ve been in a long process of negotiating, and … we’re down to 10 properties in that area that we don’t feel we’re being asked to pay fair market price for,” said Denise Wren, the district’s chief operating officer.

“We just want to be sure we’re being good stewards of taxpayer dollars.”

Three land owners left the meeting in anger after the vote, saying district officials had not informed them of the plan to condemn their homes.

“I thought we had a deal. We were just waiting on a contract, and now I hear this,” said John Layton, who lives at 1622 N. Arkansas.

Layton said most of his belongings have been packed into a temporary storage pod on his driveway since summer while he awaited word from the district on a final contract. He said he has lived at the house, which he bought from his grandmother, for about eight years.

Elma Najera said her parents, Evelio and Evelia Najera, have lived in their home on North Arkansas for 30 years and can’t afford to move for the amount of money the district offered. She lives next door to them; her property also is one the district wants to condemn.

“They’re 77 and 70 years old. Where do they go?” Elma Najera said. Her parents attended the meeting but did not comment because they can’t speak English.

Elma Najera said she didn’t remember exactly how much she or her parents had asked for the properties, but that “it was a fair price, definitely.”

Collectively, the appraised taxable value of the 10 properties the district wants is about $625,000, according to Sedgwick County tax records.

Over the past year the district has purchased 21 properties that sit just north of the school, near 15th Street and Arkansas. The district paid nearly $1.7 million for the properties and about $120,000 in closing costs and state-mandated moving costs.

Plans for new outdoor athletic facilities at North call for a football field, a track, a practice soccer field, two ball diamonds and tennis courts. They are part of nearly $12.5 million in upgrades planned for the school as part of the 2008 bond issue.

North High, which sits on 26 acres, is the district’s smallest high school campus. It is along the Little Arkansas River in the densely populated Midtown neighborhood.

School board member Lynn Rogers, whose district includes North High, said he thought acquiring land for the project would be challenging because of its location and the number of land owners involved. District officials were unable to locate three of the property owners, officials said.

“This is not something that I would want to undertake lightly,” he said. “We’ve really only done it once in the time I’ve been on the board.”

In 2002, the Wichita school district went to court over land for a new Linwood Elementary School at 1654 S. Hydraulic. The district moved ahead with its plan to build the school in South Linwood Park over the objections of some who wanted to preserve the park.

“Knowing that we’ve reached an impasse, I am comfortable supporting this because it does allow an independent court to mediate,” Rogers said prior to the vote. “The overall public good in the end, for students and for student achievement, would be really high.”

Wren said the proposed improvements at North High are necessary.

“If we’re going to provide the same awesome facilities at North as we’re providing at our other high schools, we have to expand,” she said. “That’s what we (said) when people voted for the bond.”

Board members voted Monday to authorize surveys of the 10 properties near North and the one near Pleasant Valley. After those are completed, the board will have to vote at a future meeting to pursue eminent domain.

In that process, a Sedgwick County District Court judge would appoint three appraisers to set a selling price, said Tom Powell, the board’s attorney. The appraisers would gather input from district officials and property owners.

If the district pays the court-ordered price for a property, it could take possession that day, Powell said. Property owners could appeal the price afterward, and a jury would determine how much the district should pay.

The tract of land in question near Pleasant Valley Elementary School, at 29th North and Amidon, is an 85-foot strip of land that is part of a residential property near the school, Powell said. The bond issue calls for a $1.4 million addition to the school, including a new multipurpose room and storm shelter.

The district will have to pay fees and court costs to pursue eminent domain, Powell said. He did not say how much that could be.

Wren said additional costs should be offset by lower purchase prices for the properties.

“It’s a balance,” she said. “We’re trying to be fair to everybody involved … the landowners and the taxpayers.”

Warning on health care

In other action Monday, the district’s employee benefits consultant warned board members that impending health care reform could dramatically increase the cost of the district’s self-funded health insurance plan.

“We can’t relax, and we can’t ignore what’s coming down the pike,” said Aaron Wells, a consultant with Willis of Greater Kansas, Inc. “The light at the end of the tunnel is looking more like a train than anything else.”

Wells said a new federal requirement in 2014 would compel the district to insure anyone who works at least 30 hours a week, including substitute teachers, lunch aides, custodial aides and other part-time employees who don’t currently receive benefits.

“We’re talking about … having to add 1,000 benefitted employees to your health plan,” Wells said. That could cost between $10 million and $12 million a year, he said.

“That will force you to make substantial changes,” Wells said. Options could include raising employee premiums, reducing benefits or both.

Superintendent John Allison said another option would be to strictly limit part-time employees’ hours to keep them below the 30-hour-a-week threshold.

“Either way there’s a tremendous potential impact to the way the district operates,” Allison said.

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