Editorials

District wise to delay land decision

Judging from Monday's meeting, USD 259 has yet to make the case that building a southeast Wichita high school necessitates making 12 acres of the lawn of Northwest High School available for possible sale for use as a bowling alley or some other business.

It was a concern that the school board was prepared to vote before Northwest students and parents, including the president of the site council, felt they'd been given an opportunity to learn about and offer input on the deal. School administrators apparently knew about the proposal since last summer, but the plan clearly needed more time for public debate, so it was good that the board delayed a vote until perhaps January.

(When board members and superintendent John Allison declined to discuss the closed meeting or the postponement of the vote on the land deal, they did so by choice, by the way. The Kansas Open Meetings Act allows government boards to close meetings under certain circumstances, including for discussion of real estate transactions, but it doesn't require secret meetings or bar members from discussing what was said. And why was such a major transaction originally tucked into a consent agenda?)

There are still questions about whether it would be a good deal to spend the full price of $1.56 million for the 125 acres at 127th East and Pawnee, while selling the 12 acres at 13th and Tyler for $1 million — which some local commercial real estate brokers estimate is about half the market value.

All that said, it's hard to argue that part of Northwest High School's expansive campus, or other parcels of district-owned land, should never been considered for sale or development. Especially in this economy, district officials have to be open to all options to raise revenue. The proposed deal would have helped replenish the district's capital-outlay fund, which took a $4.6 million hit in the year's state budget cuts.

And when the district has bond projects to build in established neighborhoods, it must be resourceful about its plans as well as careful with its resources.

Such dealmaking has its rewards but also challenges, of course. Remember the painful 27 months of debate early in this decade over the use of land in South Linwood Park for the new Linwood Elementary School?

At least the district is in the enviable position to be acquiring land and building schools, thanks to voters' approval 13 months ago of the $370 million bond issue. Even as the district adjusts to the state budget cuts, its bond projects are providing construction and other jobs and adding capacity and improving learning environments long term.

That makes the bond issue a bright spot in the bleak economic picture locally. But on this deal and otherwise, district officials need to make sure that the terms and prices are right. More transparency with the public, starting with the stakeholders, will build trust in the district's numbers and the details of such transactions.

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