Pride in new school

Faced with shrinking enrollments and budget shortfalls, many of the nation’s urban school districts are closing buildings, downsizing programs and cutting jobs. That makes what happened this week in USD 259 all the more remarkable — approval of a $31 million contract with the Law Co. to build the district’s first new high school since Northwest opened in 1978.

Schoolchildren, parents, teachers and administrators can thank the community for this happy sign of progress in the district, which saw its enrollment hold steady this fall at more than 50,000 students after growing by 1,300 students over the previous two years.

In November 2008, even as the community was seeing a spike in aviation layoffs, local voters recognized the need for the $370 million bond issue. As a result of voters’ foresight, the district now is able to manage its growth by upgrading and adding schools, with special attention to the neglected facilities needs of the arts, athletics and technology.

At a time when the community sorely needs jobs, the bond issue also is providing work for architects, contractors and construction crews — much as the $284 million bond issue passed in 2000 did during the post-Sept. 11 downturn.

And many bids for the latest work, including the new high school, are coming in lower than anticipated, giving taxpayers more for their money.

There still are a lot of decisions to be made about the 800-student high school to be built near 53rd Street North and Rock Road, including how and what to name it.

Having run out of directional names, the district should open up its policy to allow worthy individuals with Kansas roots to be honored at the high school level. Among the possible contenders: President Eisenhower, former Sens. Robert Dole and Nancy Landon Kassebaum Baker, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

In addition to the far-northeast high school and the new Martin Ortiz Elementary under construction at 33rd Street North and Arkansas, the district will add a high school and K-8 school in southeast Wichita, an elementary school near 47th Street South and Seneca, and a K-8 school in Bel Aire. It already has expanded other schools and completed a number of tracks and tennis courts, and is adding safe rooms.

It’s hard to remember, given voters’ wise recent decisions to invest in their schools, but just a decade ago most Wichita schools lacked air conditioning, and the district hadn’t built a new school in 16 years and had been using some of its 280 “portable” classrooms for 40 years.

School board members and district officials have a responsibility to squeeze every penny. And the looming regime change and continuing budget challenges at the state could set up Wichita for a difficult situation in which it is building schools while cutting teachers and programs.

But it’s worth noting that even as “stimulus” has become a four-letter word nationally, the 2008 bond issue has stimulated the economy locally, creating jobs and investing in the infrastructure necessary to educate the community’s children and future work force.