Activists call Wichita school closings discriminatory

Fifty years after the March on Washington for civil rights, a handful of Wichita activists stood outside Southeast High School on Wednesday to protest recent closings of several schools in low-income areas.

“We’re saying ‘no more.’ Across the country, we’re saying it needs to stop. It needs to end,” said Mary Dean, president of Kansas Justice Advocate, which describes itself as a group that works to combat discrimination.

Dean said Wednesday’s news conference on the lawn at Southeast High was in conjunction with demonstrations in 25 other cities, in which activists spoke out against school closings in low-income communities. Earlier this year in Chicago, officials closed 50 school buildings – many of them in predominantly Hispanic and African-American neighborhoods – because of declining enrollment and increasing costs.

In Wichita, the school board recently voted to build a new, $54 million Southeast High School in the far reaches of the district, at 127th East and Pawnee. The current school at Lincoln and Edgemoor, home to the Golden Buffaloes for more than 50 years, is slated to be used for district offices and technical education programs.

In March 2012, the district closed five schools and relocated Northeast Magnet High School from 17th and Chautauqua to Bel Aire as part of cost-cutting measures and new attendance boundaries.

District officials have said the closings were necessary because of drastic cuts in state funding for education. The district couldn’t afford to open and operate new schools built as part of a $370 million bond issue without closing others, they said.

Dean said her group plans to file another complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, saying the Wichita district discriminates against poor and minority students. Dean filed a similar complaint last year, saying the district’s plan to close or relocate schools was “an implicit attack upon the inner city and its minority populations.”

The boundary plan approved by the school board last spring closed four elementaries – Bryant, Emerson, Lincoln and Mueller – and moved the Northeast Magnet program to a new school at 53rd Street North and Rock Road in Bel Aire.

It also retained a patchwork of school assignments in the so-called assigned attendance area, from which students – mostly African-Americans – still are bused to seven high schools and 10 middle schools. Although the district ended its practice of busing for integration in 2008, secondary students in the AAA continue to be bused because there are no general-enrollment middle or high schools nearby.

“I know that everybody seems to think that it’s over, but for us it’s not over,” Dean said Wednesday.

“Closing these schools clearly impacts low-income students and integrated areas. It will particularly impact the black and brown children who were able to walk to school and now have to walk further or ride a bus.”