A state lawmaker and some Wichita residents say they plan to fight a plan being discussed that could close Southeast High School and move its students to a new high school in the far southeast corner of the district.
State Rep. Jim Ward, a former Wichita school board member and City Council member, called the idea “a terrible decision for southeast Wichita and all core city neighborhoods,” saying the high school at Lincoln and Edgemoor is crucial to the future of the surrounding area.
“I don’t think new is better in this case,” said Ward, whose district includes Southeast High.
“If you have this pot of money but you can only staff and operate one high school, why not put that money toward renovating and expanding Southeast and really making it a showpiece?
“You have to think about long-term benefits to the community, and everybody knows schools are a driver” of redevelopment, he said.
Residents near the proposed new school site at 127th Street East and Pawnee, meanwhile, say they want the district to make good on its bond promise to build a smaller Class 5A high school on that land rather than a school that would be larger than the current Southeast High.
“I’ve been talking with lots of parents in my area and … getting lots of negative response,” said Sheri Williamson, a Wichita mom who lives near the site of the proposed new high school.
Her oldest son is a junior at Southeast. Her other three children attend Christa McAuliffe Academy, a K-8 school that opened last fall at 143rd Street East and Pawnee.
“What everybody’s saying is, ‘What happened to what was originally promised in the bond issue, and how can they just throw that away and change it now?’ ” Williamson said. “I think there definitely will be some pushback on it.”
Wichita school board members plan to start public discussions next month about how to proceed with nearly 20 bond issue projects still on hold, including a new $38 million high school in the southeast quadrant and a $12 million expansion and renovation to Southeast High.
Superintendent John Allison has talked with city and county leaders about locating a new city-county law enforcement training center at Southeast High. He said the district does not have the money to staff and operate a new comprehensive high school in addition to Southeast.
Some board members and neighborhood residents said they also have talked about establishing a technical education magnet high school at Southeast – an idea one neighborhood leader said he would support.
About $17 million of the $370 million bond issue voters approved in 2008 was marked for technical education – $1 million for each of the district’s seven comprehensive high schools and $10 million to develop a new magnet program with a tech ed focus. The technical education money was added to the bond plan without specifying what or where the magnet program would be.
That part of the bond issue was put on hold two years ago, when district officials voted to “pause and study” remaining bond issue projects as they grappled with budget cuts.
About a month before that vote, the district paid $2 million for a former Dillons grocery store at 13th and Waco, near North High School. District officials said at the time that there were no immediate plans for the property, but that they were considering renovating it to use for technical education programs. The building now is being used as an office, warehouse and distribution center for Operation School Bell.
Dave Robbins, president of the Fabrique Neighborhood Association, said his biggest fear is that the district will build a new school and move students there without a detailed plan for what to do with Southeast.
“We don’t want a vacant building there. That’s the worst option,” Robbins said. The Fabrique neighborhood is just east of Southeast High, between Kellogg and Harry and from Edgemoor to Woodlawn.
Expanding and renovating Southeast “would be a plus for us,” he said. “But I don’t think that’s the thrust of the conversation. I don’t think the board’s really interested in doing that.”
Robbins said he also wonders what will happen with Curtis Middle School and Caldwell Elementary, located just south of Southeast High along Edgemoor.
“A lot of people move into this area because it’s like we have a K-12 school,” he said. “People who rent or own here, one of the things they factor into their decision is the proximity to the schools, and that kids could walk to school.”
Making a decision
School board president Lynn Rogers said he doesn’t know which way he’s leaning on the Southeast High issue – to build a new, larger school or to renovate Southeast. The board could delay the decision, but Rogers said that wouldn’t be fair to Southeast students still waiting for their new gymnasium, classrooms, athletic facilities and other bond improvements.
“It’s one of those things where you’re not going to make everybody happy,” Rogers said last week. “We saw that with the boundary issue and closing those schools. … Nothing about this is going to be easy.”
As part of a new boundary plan approved last spring, board members opted to move Northeast Magnet High School from 17th and Chautauqua to a new building in Bel Aire. Officials subsequently moved Metro-Boulevard Alternative High School to the old Northeast building.
Ward, the state legislator, said he hopes residents near Southeast High pay attention to upcoming discussions and get involved in the process, as well as “anyone who cares about preserving core areas of our city.”
“I’ve represented that area around Southeast High for a long time. I go to neighborhood association meetings where the discussion is all absentee landlords, (code) inspections, police reports – all of which will be increased if you take the school out of there,” he said.
“Schools are a key part of any community. … This is important not only for the school board, but the entire city of Wichita. You could create a whole section of the city that will die, it will just go away, if decision-makers look just at cost and nothing else.”