Wichita school board votes to build new Southeast High School

Wichita school board members voted 6-0 Monday to build a new, $54 million Southeast High School in the far reaches of the district.

The current school at Lincoln and Edgemoor, home to the Golden Buffaloes for more than half a century, likely will be used for district offices and technical education programs, officials said.

As part of the vote, the board directed superintendent John Allison to begin negotiations with Wichita Area Technical College to locate some of that agency’s programs at the current Southeast High, 903 S. Edgemoor. The district also will market its downtown office building at 201 N. Water.

Board member Sheril Logan said she opted for a new school at 127th East and Pawnee rather than expanding and renovating the current Southeast High because most students favored a new school.

“They love their building. They love their school. But as long as their school moves intact, they’d love to have a brand-new building,” Logan said.

“It wasn’t a 100 percent vote, but it was certainly a majority vote,” she said, referring to informal discussions between district officials and Southeast High students over the past two months. “They voted for a new building and the school moving and all the traditions moving, and it would be Southeast in a new building.”

The plan approved Monday calls for the new Southeast High, built to accommodate about 1,800 students, to open in 2016. It will maintain the same attendance boundaries and have a district stadium and modern facilities for athletics and fine arts.

The cost of busing students to the new high school, about six miles from the current Southeast, could increase $28,000 a year or as much as $500,000 a year, depending on routes and attendance patterns, Allison said.

The vote came after months of debate and more than a year of speculation, which began after the district closed several schools and put bond issue projects on hold as education funding dropped from expected levels.

Board member Barbara Fuller did not attend Monday’s meeting.

Community discussion

The $370 million bond issue approved by voters in 2008 called for expanding and renovating Southeast and building a smaller, Class 5A high school in the southeast quadrant. Board members took that option off the table early in the discussion Monday, saying the district could afford to build two schools but not to staff and operate them.

During the bond issue campaign, “I remember the question being asked, ‘Do you have the money to operate the school?’ And I said we did,” said board president Lynn Rogers. “Little did I know or think that the state Legislature would ignore a Supreme Court ruling” on education funding.

Several community members spoke to board members Monday, most urging them not to move Southeast.

“Show this community that neighborhood schools are important,” said Brandon Johnson. “Why is it that our inner-city areas cannot have these great new schools that the areas around Wichita receive?”

Randy Thon, who has children at Southeast High and Christa McAuliffe Academy, a middle school near the site of the proposed new high school, urged board members to move forward with the new school.

“Once you see all the facts, it’s a clear choice what should be done,” said Thon, who helped lead a citizens group in favor of the 2008 bond issue. “Let’s put the attention back on the students and the staff at Southeast High and do what’s right by them.”

Board member Betty Arnold said she listened to arguments on both sides of the issue.

“I heard many reasons about not moving the building. … The majority of the reasons had to do with the adult attachment to the physical location of the building,” Arnold said.

Mary Dean, who opposed the move, spoke out from the audience: “That’s not true.”

Rogers moved to silence audience members, saying remaining discussion would be limited to the board table.

“It’s always been at the board table,” Dean said. “That’s the problem.”

Shortly afterward, several opponents left the North High lecture hall out a side door, one of them loudly playing a kazoo in protest.

Moving forward

Monday’s vote was one of the last for Lanora Nolan and Connie Dietz, longtime board members who did not run for re-election and will vacate their positions June 30. Mike Rodee and Joy Eakins, who will replace them, took their ceremonial oath of office prior to Monday’s meeting.

Nolan said she had spoken with Rodee and that her vote reflected his thoughts as well.

“The board would like nothing better than to follow through with Option C,” she said, referring to the plan to both renovate Southeast and build a new school, as proposed in the bond issue. But an additional $9.3 million a year to staff and operate both schools was “not feasible,” she said.

“If there’s any voter mistrust in this community, it certainly must lie at the state level, as they hold the purse strings and they make the choice to not fund education appropriately,” she said.

Don Landis, a vocal opponent of moving Southeast, said he was disappointed by the vote. He said building a new school because most students said they wanted one wasn’t a good reason.

“I was a student, too, and I can tell you that when I was in high school, had I been presented with Option A or Option B, I would have easily chosen B,” he said. “That’s a no-brainer. Everybody goes for the big, shiny schools. We get it.

“Twenty years down the road, they may feel differently, when they become homeowners and taxpayers.”

Leroy Parks, principal at Southeast, said he was “just really happy and relieved that a decision has been made.”

“There’s been a lot of stress, not only for our staff but for the kids,” Parks said after the vote. “I know the board had a tough decision. I’m just happy a decision’s been made and we can start focusing in that direction.”

Also on Monday, the board voted to void its contract with a local developer, who wanted to buy the former Mueller Elementary. In the same vote, made without discussion as part of the consent agenda, it approved a contract to sell Mueller, 2821 E. 24th St. North, for $40,000 to Christian Faith Centre, which plans to use it for a private school.

The board also approved a new policy that bans firearms from school district buildings and district-owned vehicles except by law enforcement officers.

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