School shutdown could have wide-ranging impact on Wichita

College Hill Elementary fourth-grader Avery Basinger plays four square Thursday while waiting for his parents to pick him up from the school’s latchkey program. A potential shutdown of schools on July 1 would mean no more summer latchkey program.
College Hill Elementary fourth-grader Avery Basinger plays four square Thursday while waiting for his parents to pick him up from the school’s latchkey program. A potential shutdown of schools on July 1 would mean no more summer latchkey program. The Wichita Eagle

Just as she has for the past three years, Courtney Lawrie was among the first parents to enroll her children in the summer latchkey program at College Hill Elementary.

“My kids love it. They look forward to it,” said Lawrie, whose children, Jack, a kindergartner, and Rylee, a second-grader, attend the school at First and Clifton. “They’ve been talking about it all year long.”

At $16 a day per child – $80 a week – the Wichita school district’s summertime child care is the best deal in town, she said.

But this year, she’s worried.

A potential shutdown of schools on July 1 – a threat issued by the Kansas Supreme Court in its February ruling on school funding – would mean no more summer latchkey program. That would send the families of about 1,200 Wichita kids scrambling for child care.

A shutdown also would halt a summer food program run by the district that serves meals to hungry children at 44 sites across the city.

It would block access to student records for college, scholarship or job applications.

It could delay construction and maintenance projects and the opening of a new Southeast High School.

And it would leave school district employees and vendors wondering about their next paychecks – an economic impact estimated at about $50 million a month.

We sort of have to plan for the worst and hope for the best.

Jim Freeman, chief financial officer for Wichita schools

“We sort of have to plan for the worst and hope for the best,” said Jim Freeman, chief financial officer for the Wichita district.

“We don’t know whether it will come to pass or not. We don’t know when it will happen. We’ve got all kinds of time lines out there … so we’re anxious to see what will come out of the Supreme Court,” he said.

“I think we will be OK, but until we know for sure when that shutdown might occur, we really don’t know.”

Warning families

Lawyers for school districts and the state of Kansas argued last week before the Kansas Supreme Court over HB 2655, a law that legislators hope will address a February court order to make school funding more fair.

The court has threatened to close schools if the state does not find a solution by June 30.

As the court’s ruling and its deadline looms, Wichita school officials are preparing for a worst-case scenario, developing a plan they hope will protect school buildings, supplies, technology and equipment in the event of a shutdown.

They’re also starting to notify families and employees about the potential shutdown, warning them of consequences that likely would ripple through the community.

School board president Betty Arnold said a shutdown would most immediately affect parents who rely on the summer latchkey program, which starts May 31 at two dozen Wichita elementary schools.

“Do we even suggest that they look at alternative possibilities?” Arnold asked during a board discussion last week.

“I think all we do at this point is just communicate what we know,” Freeman answered. “That it is a potential and it might happen, and that we’ll give them as much notice as we possibly can if it were to come to pass.”

Karla Stenzel, director of the latchkey program at College Hill Elementary, said recent talk has “generated a lot of attention and a lot of questions” from parents, most of whom had assumed a school shutdown was an empty threat.

“Nothing that has happened with this budget crisis has really hit them personally – until this,” Stenzel said. “I don’t think people get it, but now they’re starting to worry.”

Lawrie, the College Hill mom, is among the anxious.

“I didn’t think it would get to this point, honestly,” she said. “I don’t think many parents did.

“We thought that they would work it out and figure it out before now, and they haven’t.”

I didn’t think it would get to this point, honestly. I don’t think many parents did.

Courtney Lawrie, Wichita parent

Lawrie said she works full time at Protection One, and her husband owns a barber shop. Should summer latchkey programs close, they would have to patch together a child care plan using friends, family members and babysitters, she said.

“We are not in a position to afford day care or a nanny or a babysitter to come by every day to watch our children,” Lawrie said. “It does scare us.

“We’re trying not to think about it right now, and we’re just hoping and praying that it doesn’t happen.”

Protecting crucial systems

Superintendent John Allison said potential effects of a school shutdown would depend on its scope and timing.

Should the court demand that buildings be closed and all utilities, technology and security systems shut down, that “gets pretty scary … and could create havoc for us if it’s not handled properly,” Allison said.

In that case, the district plans to file a motion requesting that critical systems remain operational and a skeleton crew be allowed to work, he said.

Basic utilities and security are needed to protect taxpayer assets, Allison said.

In addition, a week or two leeway after July 1 would allow the district to complete June payroll for employees who work through that month.

Earlier this year, fearing that the Supreme Court threat to shut down schools could become a reality, about 80 percent of Wichita teachers opted for a lump-sum summer paycheck. Those employees will receive the balance of their annual compensation next month rather than spread over June, July and August.

“An operation of our size, over 100 buildings, all the implications that come with our ability to do business or not do business,” Allison said. “We need to be prepared to address that, should it unfortunately, actually occur.”

School district technology, for instance, is “intentionally designed to run 24/7,” Allison said. Backing up data and then sequentially shutting systems down would take at least two weeks.

Bringing systems back up from a complete shutdown could take even longer, he said, and likely would result in hardware failure.

“If the shutdown is 10 days, we don’t just lose 10 days,” Allison said. “We lose a much greater time period. It almost guarantees the delay of the start of school.”

A previous shutdown threat

This isn’t the first time Kansas schools have faced a potential shutdown.

In 2004, a school finance ruling by Shawnee County District Judge Terry Bullock – later upheld by the Kansas Supreme Court – threatened to close schools June 30 of that year unless state lawmakers changed the way schools were funded.

The Legislature acted by the deadline, but its fix was later found to be insufficient. In April 2005, the court ordered the Legislature to provide $290 million more to schools, which it did during a special session over the July 4th weekend.

“I could see this happening similarly,” said Wichita school board member Lynn Rogers, who was on the board during the last shutdown threat.

It affects every school district in the state, every student. And while some may be able to open up a little faster than we could, many will be in the same boat.

Lynn Rogers, Wichita school board member

“It affects every school district in the state, every student. And while some may be able to open up a little faster than we could, many will be in the same boat.”

How likely is a shutdown? That’s the question everyone’s debating in classrooms, hallways, board rooms and living rooms.

The court ordered the Legislature to have a constitutional school funding plan in place by the end of next month. If it rules in coming weeks that the current law doesn’t fix inequity in funding between rich and poor school districts, lawmakers will have to reconvene to shift money or hash out a new plan.

“We could be moving up through the end of June and still not know where we’re going to be,” said Allison, the superintendent. “That’s why we have to move forward as though it will happen, and hope that it’s a lot of extra effort and time that we invested that we didn’t have to actually use.”

Outside groups

Although most students and teachers are home during the summer months, maintenance crews and custodians spend much of that time preparing buildings for the new year.

The district’s summer school program, which runs June 6-23 at North High School and Chester I. Lewis Academic Learning Center, should not be affected by a potential shutdown.

But several local groups, including six churches, rent Wichita schools year-round for worship services. Some coaches host basketball camps, practices and other activities over the summer.

Austin Abney, lead pastor of Revolution Church, gathers with his growing congregation at Isely Elementary School in Bel Aire every Sunday. Renting the school is cost-effective for the church – about $744 a week, Abney said – and provides some extra income for the district.

“The school system has built some pretty awesome facilities, and it’s nice that those are available for community use,” Abney said.

About 50 church members meet in the auditorium and cafeteria at Isely from 8 a.m. to noon Sundays.

“We enjoy being there,” he said.

Prior to renting Isely about a year ago, the church rented Stucky Middle School for about 18 months, Abney said.

If a shutdown forces them to find a different location, “We would probably have to scramble a bit,” he said. “But God’s always been good, and we could figure it out.”

Freeman, the district budget director, said churches and other groups “will be communicated with and (told) there’s a potential that they will not have access to our facilities.”

People are starting to come up to me and say, ‘Could this really happen?’ And I’m saying, ‘Yes, absolutely this could happen.’

Karla Stenzel, latchkey director at College Hill Elementary

Officials with Dondlinger Construction, lead contractor for Wichita’s new $60 million Southeast High School, said that project should be mostly complete by July. But a summertime shutdown could delay the move into the new school and other projects, such as a new auditorium and storm shelter at Robinson Middle School.

“It would be disastrous for the district and the community,” said Tom Dondlinger, president of the company. “I think it would be a sad situation if it happened.”

Stenzel, the latchkey director, said shutting down schools would have an economic impact throughout the community, even during the summer.

Her program and others take regular field trips – as many as three or more a week – to area attractions such as skating rinks, swimming pools, movie theaters and bowling alleys. Absent hundreds of students, she said, those businesses would suffer.

And that’s a fraction of the losses that would happen if thousands of district employees went without pay.

“People are starting to come up to me and say, ‘Could this really happen?’ And I’m saying, ‘Yes, absolutely this could happen,’ ” Stenzel said.

“It’s a scary thing.”

Suzanne Perez Tobias: 316-268-6567, @suzannetobias