Answers to questions about plan for Southeast High School

By Suzanne Perez Tobias

June 25, 2013 08:23 PM

The plan is set: Southeast High School’s Golden Buffaloes are moving to wide-open pastures in the southeast corner of the district.

Wichita school board members voted 6-0 Monday to build a new, $54 million high school at 127th Street East and Pawnee. The school – by far the largest and most expensive project approved as part of the 2008 bond issue – will be the new home of Southeast High rather than a smaller, Class 5A high school as proposed in the original bond plan.

The vote prompted dozens of questions. Here are some answers:

When will the district break ground on the new Southeast High? When will it open?

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Officials hope to break ground during the 2013-14 school year. Construction is expected to take 34 months. The new school would open in the fall of 2016.

Who will design the new school, and how will it look?

Schaefer Johnson Cox Frey, the district’s bond manager and lead architect, will design the new Southeast. It will be modeled on Northeast Magnet High School, near 53rd Street North and Rock Road in Bel Aire, which officials say will reduce architectural costs. Unlike Northeast Magnet, which does not have outdoor athletic facilities, the new Southeast will feature a district stadium and track, baseball and softball diamonds, tennis courts, practice fields and other athletic amenities.

How much will it cost to bus students to the new high school?

Superintendent John Allison said transportation costs will increase, but the exact amount is hard to pin down. Busing costs could increase anywhere from $28,000 a year to $560,000 a year, depending on routes and attendance patterns, Allison said.

What will happen with the old Southeast at Lincoln and Edgemoor?

The district plans to consolidate many of its downtown offices at the current Southeast High, 903 S. Edgemoor. As part of Monday’s vote, board members also directed Allison to begin negotiations with Wichita Area Technical College to locate some of that agency’s programs at the current Southeast.

Consolidating offices will entail moving out of two downtown buildings: the nine-story Alvin E. Morris Administrative Center, 201 N. Water, which the district owns and has shopped to potential buyers; and the Joyce Focht Instructional Support Center, 412 S. Main, which it leases.

A preliminary “footprint” of a repurposed Southeast High, which Allison presented to board members last week, showed about 100,000 square feet of the building going to WATC programs and about 110,000 square feet to district offices. Parts of the building, such as the 900-seat auditorium, would be “shared spaces,” Allison said.

How much will it cost to retrofit the old Southeast for offices and technical education programs?

District officials said they plan to make “limited renovations” to accommodate administrative offices and WATC classrooms at the old Southeast. So far they have not said how much that would cost.

How will the move affect neighborhoods near Southeast High?

Some who oppose moving Southeast from its diverse, urban neighborhood to a rural area at 127th Street East and Pawnee said they worry that the building could languish and property values plummet. Some lawmakers and neighborhood groups actively fought the plan to move the school.

Before her vote Monday, board member Lanora Nolan pledged again that Southeast would not sit empty.

“I will remind you again that this board has promised that building will not only not be vacated, but it will be filled with USD 259 employees and … WATC students and staff from very early morning hours to late,” Nolan said.

“Local retailers might even feel an economic boom due to such a transitional use of the building.”

Are district leaders concerned about the distance from older, low-income neighborhoods to the new school? How will the school accommodate students who want to participate in extracurricular activities but might not have transportation, or parents who need help getting to conferences and activities?

“Because there are a few years before the move,” district spokeswoman Susan Arensman said in an e-mail, “that will give us time to work with families and assess community needs.”

Last school year, 675 students at Southeast High – about 43 percent – lived less than 2.5 miles from the school. About one-third of those students regularly walked to school, district officials said.

At the new location, only 128 students – about 9 percent – would live within 2.5 miles of the school. All students likely will qualify for bus rides because of a lack of sidewalks in the area.

The district employs activity buses to allow all students to participate in after-school and extra-curricular activities. Those buses, which run after school from each of the district’s high schools, would continue to operate at the new Southeast, officials said.

What prompted comments from some residents who addressed the board Monday that Southeast was unfairly portrayed as a “ghetto school?”

Allison and board member Betty Arnold met recently with members of the Wichita Ministerial League and others to discuss options for Southeast High. The meeting was not announced to media. During the meeting, Allison was asked what Southeast students thought about the options the school board was considering.

According to a recording of the meeting obtained by The Eagle, Allison told the group that, “They (the majority of students) really felt like a brand new, state-of-the-art building would be advantageous as they move forward.

“Unfortunately for the students in the Southeast area we met with in focus groups, they are concerned about community perception about the neighborhood of their school, that it was referred to as the ‘ghetto high school,’ that the perception around their school was negative,” Allison said.

“They felt like they could make a step forward for Southeast if they were in a different position, in a different building. That surprised me, to be honest, that they felt as strongly as they did about that.”

Will attendance boundaries change?

District officials have said they don’t plan to change attendance boundaries, which were redrawn last spring. Students currently living in the Southeast High boundaries, which stretch from Bluff to 159th Street East, north past 21st Street North and south to the Derby, Andover and Rose Hill district lines, will continue to be assigned to Southeast.

What about potential overcrowding at the new Southeast, if more students who live in the boundaries decide to go there?

This year, about 1,600 students attended Southeast High. The new school is being designed to accommodate 1,800.

But Southeast has the highest transfer rate of any high school in Wichita. Nearly a third of students who live within the Southeast boundaries attend other schools – public, private, e-schools or home schools – according to data from RSP & Associates, a consulting firm hired by the district to study housing and enrollment patterns.

Last school year, 2,138 high school-age students lived within the Southeast boundaries. Only 1,476 of those students attended Southeast.

Arensman said Tuesday that the district “may have to consider redrawing some boundaries if the (new) school becomes overcrowded in the future.”

Who will improve roads around the school to accommodate increased traffic? How much is the work expected to cost, and who will pay?

The city estimates the cost of improving 127th Street East south of Pawnee, including adding a turn lane, is $365,000, Arensman said. All other major arterial roadways around the property are paved.

As part of its purchase of the land from Occidental in 2010, the district agreed to pay 77 percent of the cost of road improvements; Occidental agreed to pay the remaining 23 percent.