The Wichita school board voted on Monday to move forward with a new Southeast High School, but one board member voiced frustration over unanswered questions and a behind-the-scenes process she called “very disconcerting.”
Joy Eakins, whose district includes the new Southeast High, was the lone vote against a measure to accept the school’s $60 million price tag. She said she was left out of discussions about the scope of the project and that many of her questions about Southeast and other issues have been ignored.
“I’ve tried to work through the right channels on this board to gain information, and if this were the first time I had not received information … it would be different,” Eakins said.
“I’ve made board requests where the information was never given and the board request dropped off the list. So I think District 2 deserves better treatment than that.”
Board members on Monday were considering the guaranteed maximum price from Dondlinger Construction for the new Southeast High, set at just less than $60 million.
Kenton Cox of Schaefer Johnson Cox Frey, the district’s bond manager, said the school will be larger than initially thought – about 330,000 square feet – because space was added for a two-story “tech plaza” that will feature modern culinary arts labs, pre-engineering classrooms, business computer labs, animation studios and more.
When board members voted to build the new school at 129th Street East and Pawnee about 18 months ago, the estimated price was $54 million. Since then, construction costs have risen and the project has been expanded so that the school will house 1,800 students, Cox said.
Eakins said that over the weekend, she tried to find out what prompted the cost escalations: “Why is there more space? Where did this come from? And how did it get there without board input?” she said.
“And (I) realized that … board members have given input. However, I did not have the opportunity to give input,” she said. “So I’m struggling because I didn’t have a chance to ask questions … about why we are where we are.”
Other board members said they felt comfortable with the process and voted 6-1 in favor of Monday’s measure to accept Dondlinger’s price.
The price does not include a varsity football stadium or other outdoor athletic fields. But superintendent John Allison pledged Monday that the school would open with physical education and athletic facilities comparable to those of other city high schools.
“Our commitment to Southeast students is no less for this project than any of the others,” Allison said.
Board president Sheril Logan said she felt comfortable with the process and voted in favor of the price tag measure.
“I think it’s money well spent, because this school’s going to be around for the next 50 years or more,” Logan said. “Sometimes money spent up front is a well-spent amount, so I feel comfortable with this.”
Board member Lynn Rogers added: “I appreciate that we’re not trying to do it on the cheap.”
After the meeting, Eakins said she thought discussions about the project that may have happened away from the board table “appear to be legal.” She just wasn’t privy to them.
“There have been several issues where I didn’t have the right information at the right time,” she said. “I’ve made that known to board members, I’ve expressed that to the administrators responsible, and nothing’s changed. And for a project of this size, to not have that information is very disconcerting.
“What I hope happens is that members of the board aren’t minimized because they take stands that are opposite of other people or because people disagree or because it’s inconvenient.”
Asked about Eakins’ comments after the meeting, Allison said, “I have no response. … Issues that a board member has, concerns, that’s something we talk about, and that’s it.”
He said he keeps board members apprised of issues.
“There’s a great deal of information our board has to digest that is sent to all of them. District staff is available to answer questions at any time to the best of our ability,” he said. “That’s just the way we’ve always operated.”