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Principals wait, hope

Last week families gathered at Anderson Elementary to see plans for a $2.6 million addition and renovation to the south Wichita school. Perhaps most exciting, said principal Lynn Simnitt, were sketches that showed two pre-kindergarten classrooms. The school doesn't have a pre-K program now, Simnitt said, because there isn't space.

"You could see several parents with younger children looking at the display boards and kind of doing the math," she said. "It was like, 'Oh, that's when it's going to be finished, so he's going to be able to come to pre-K.'

"The ability to have kids in our neighborhood attend school at an earlier age and get that early start was just huge for us."

Now the project, scheduled to begin in May and be completed next summer, is on hold while the district re-evaluates its bond issue.

Martin Libhart, chief operations officer for Wichita schools, said slightly less than half the funds from the $370 million bond issue have been spent or are "contractually committed" to contractors or architects.

The rest of the bond issue — anything not currently under construction, including projects scheduled to go out for competitive bids this month — are part of a "pause and study" board members approved this week.

The move could alter or delay many long-awaited projects, including a new high school in southeast Wichita, storm shelters, science labs, cafeteria expansions and classroom additions.

"We're looking at what's the best way to get the most for our investment, and that's part of our consideration with any spending," said superintendent John Allison.

"Right now we haven't made any changes to the bond plan," he said. "What we'll be doing with our pause and study is trying to get our hands around that and look at... possible efficiencies."

Randy Thon, a Wichita father and co-chair of the district's bond oversight committee, said the board's action Monday evening was "the first time I heard they were looking at doing that."

The committee is scheduled to meet Feb. 17 to talk about upcoming projects.

Thon said he agrees with the move, which was prompted by cuts in state and federal matching funds for the bond issue. District officials say reductions in capital outlay money, coupled with cuts to the base state aid per pupil, will affect their ability to maintain and staff new schools and classrooms.

"I understand that we're in bad economic times," said Thon, who also co-chaired a committee that campaigned in support of the bond issue in 2008.

"I think all the priorities were set correctly, but this is just an issue like anybody's household budget.... When you don't have the funding, something has to change."

Some principals awaiting the next phase of bond projects say they don't know how or whether recent developments will affect their schools. Bond projects have been scheduled over six years.

Wilbur Middle School, near Central and Tyler, is expecting $2.5 million in bond work, including an auxiliary gymnasium designed as a Federal Emergency Management Agency-approved storm shelter.

The bond issue included $45 million for 60 rooms that would double as FEMA shelters for schools that don't have them. The district also counted on $18 million in FEMA grants for safe rooms — about half of which is not coming as expected, Libhart said.

Mark Jolliffe, principal at Wilbur, said plans for a four-classroom addition at the end of the science hall was cut to two classrooms. The proposed new gym would provide a storm shelter and also free up space for lunchroom seating and serving lines.

Like other principals, Jolliffe said he's not sure what the pause in bond projects might mean for his school. Construction was supposed to begin next week.

"Part of it's the state of the times, and we have to be realistic," he said.

Tim Seguine, principal at Mayberry Cultural and Fine Arts Middle Magnet School, said a $2.5 million project at that school would add restrooms in the sixth-grade hallway, expand fine arts space and provide a practice gym and FEMA-approved storm shelter.

"We've survived without this for many years and could probably survive many more, but it certainly would affect what we're able to do," he said.

"In the next day or two we'll have some conversation" about project delays, Seguine said. "But we can't make money if we don't have it."

Simnitt, the Anderson principal, said renovations slated for her school are "modest in scope but necessary." About 96 percent of students at the school, near 31st South and Hydraulic, qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, an indicator of poverty.

Part of a classroom addition is intended to replace two portable classrooms, which are still used by small groups of English-language learners who need extra instruction. Bond money also would pay for new faculty restrooms.

"We have 65 staff members and one set of adult restrooms," Simnitt said. "They literally line up for them at certain times."

But most crucial, she said, are plans for the pre-kindergarten program, which teachers hoped would give needy children a better chance of academic success. She and other officials still hope they can launch the program as planned in the fall of 2012.

"I understand the challenges, but I'm very hopeful," Simnitt said. "We know something has to happen, that the money has to come from somewhere.

"All we can do is continue to be very transparent with our families about what's happening and have some open and honest conversations. I know everyone is very interested in what happens next."

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