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'Change the plan': Some Wichita school board members say they won't go for a major bond issue

Wichita Superintendent Kelly Bielefeld answers questions from school board members about a plan to rebuild and consolidate schools.
Suzanne Perez
Wichita Superintendent Kelly Bielefeld answers questions from school board members about a plan to rebuild and consolidate schools.

The Wichita school board's three conservative members — Kathy Bond, Hazel Stabler and Diane Albert — voiced concerns about the size and timing of a potential bond issue. District leaders say they can't refurbish schools without a bond.

WICHITA, Kansas — Some Wichita school board members are raising objections to a proposal that calls for a $450 million bond issue to rebuild and consolidate schools.

“You have it here, clearly stated: ‘This plan is not possible without a bond,’” board member Kathy Bond said during a board workshop. “I say, change the plan.”

Bond and the board’s two other conservative members — Hazel Stabler and Diane Albert — also voiced concerns about the size and timing of a potential bond issue.

The proposal, crafted by consultants hired by the board, calls for building five new elementary schools and two middle schools, and closing about a dozen buildings.

It would also build a new early childhood center, convert two elementary schools to K-8 schools, add a career center focused on construction trades, and add athletic fields to Northeast Magnet High School.

The goal is to reduce the district’s overall capacity and move students from old buildings into newer, updated ones. Wichita’s enrollment has declined by more than 8% over the past seven years, and consultants say schools need more than $1.2 billion in repairs and maintenance.

District officials say the plan would not require a tax increase. But it would require extending a current bond tax that is scheduled to end in 2029.

Bond said the district needs to scale back the plan or find other ways to finance improvements. She suggested applying for grants or even asking for private donations.

“If 300,000 people gave $5, that would hit it, and we wouldn’t even need to ask for a bond issue,” Bond said.

“Well, no — I mean, 300,000 times five isn’t $450 million,” Superintendent Kelly Bielefeld responded. (That level of donation would total $1.5 million — about 0.33% of the proposed bond issue.)

“But we can get there somehow,” Bond said. “I’m just picking things out so it doesn’t have to go to a bond issue. I’m just thinking outside of the box. I’ll think of anything to prevent a bond, even if it’s silly.”

Board member Melody McCray-Miller says the district faces a pivotal moment because of declining enrollment, aging buildings and the end of federal pandemic aid. She said the consultants’ proposal makes sense because the district can no longer afford its network of small neighborhood schools.

“We treasure those schools that are around the corner in your neighborhood. … I’m a part of that. But times change,” McCray-Miller said.

“It’s not going to be easy as we move this forward, but there’s definitely reasons why we need to do things differently. Because the landscape has changed,” she said. “We have to be able to correctly project our budgets, and then we have to be able to meet those budgets.”

The Wichita school board voted in March to permanently close six schools at the end of the academic year to help fill a $42 million budget deficit.

Some Wichita residents have said they don’t like the proposed restructuring plan because it would close and consolidate many of the district’s smaller elementary schools. Facilities director Luke Newman told board members they likely won’t have a choice.

“The reality is, because of our funding and where we are — and you all know that reality well — we will have to consolidate buildings regardless,” Newman said.

Each new elementary school proposed as part of the $450 million plan would have four classes at each grade level, for a total enrollment of 550 or more. That’s significantly larger than most current Wichita elementary schools.

Before the recent closures, nearly half of Wichita’s 54 elementary schools had fewer than 350 students, which consultants say is inefficient and costly to maintain. A dozen elementaries had fewer than 300 students.

Newman, the facilities director, said the district’s current predicament happened in part because previous boards made building security a high priority.

Over the past decade — starting shortly after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 — the Wichita district has spent millions on controlled-access doors, buzz-in entrances, security cameras and a centralized dispatch system.

“We’ve chosen to spend less on deferred maintenance so that we can fund secured entrances. That’s a choice we’ve made,” Newman said. “But does that have consequences? Yes, because the total number of dollars we have isn’t enough to keep up.”

Albert, the board vice president, said bond improvements should be geared toward improving academic achievement. Bielefeld said new and refurbished buildings would have larger classroom spaces that would allow for more innovative teaching.

“That’s part of the plan I really like and support. But we also have to balance that with fiscal responsibility,” Albert said. “We know that the economy is hard, and taxpayers are feeling a stretch and a burden. … So I wonder if there’s ways to scale it back.”

A majority of Wichita board members would have to vote to put a bond issue on the ballot, and then the Kansas Board of Education would have to approve it. The deadline to get a bond question on the November ballot in Sedgwick County is Sept. 2.

The Wichita school board will meet next week to hear the results of a community survey on the consultants’ plan. Board president Stan Reeser said he does not expect a final vote on the plan until later this summer.

Suzanne Perez reports on education for KMUW in Wichita and the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @SuzPerezICT.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KMUW, KCUR, Kansas Public Radio and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

Suzanne Perez is a longtime journalist covering education and general news for KMUW and the Kansas News Service. Suzanne reviews new books for KMUW and is the co-host with Beth Golay of the Books & Whatnot podcast. Follow her on Twitter @SuzPerezICT.