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Looking to cut costs, Wichita proposes closing two middle schools and four elementaries

Wichita Superintendent Kelly Bielefeld has proposed a plan to close two middle schools and four elementary schools at the end of this academic year. The district faces declining enrollment and about $1 billion in needed repairs to buildings.
Suzanne Perez
Wichita Superintendent Kelly Bielefeld has proposed a plan to close two middle schools and four elementary schools at the end of this academic year. The district faces declining enrollment and about $1 billion in needed repairs to buildings.

The two middle schools and four elementary schools proposed for closure are among the district's lowest-enrollment buildings. They are predominantly in the south and west portions of the district.

WICHITA, Kansas — Wichita school leaders have proposed closing two middle schools and four elementary schools at the end of this academic year — a move that would trim about $16 million from the district’s budget.

Superintendent Kelly Bielefeld said the plan calls for closing Hadley Middle School, near Ninth and West Street, and Jardine STEM and Career Explorations Academy, near Pawnee and Hillside in Wichita’s Planeview neighborhood.

The elementary schools slated for closure are: Clark, near Lincoln and Woodlawn; Cleaveland Traditional Magnet, near 31st Street South and Meridian; Park, 1025 N. Main; and Payne, near Harry and Meridian.

Bielefeld said a number of factors went into deciding which schools to close, including enrollment trends, the buildings’ age and condition, staffing levels and the school’s location in the district.

“We vetted literally dozens of schools to find the right fit that would save us the money we needed to save and be least disruptive to the system,” he said.

Wichita Board of Education members and the public got their first look at the list of schools during Monday night’s board meeting. The board plans to vote on the plan at its next meeting March 4.

Wichita, the state’s largest school district, is dealing with declining enrollment and a $42 million budget shortfall. Bielefeld said closing and consolidating buildings is the only way to prevent job cuts.

The schools proposed for closure are primarily on the south and west sides of the district. Four of the six schools are south of Kellogg.

The four elementary schools slated for closure have enrollments below 350 students. Consultants hired by the district told board members in December that small schools are inefficient and costly to maintain.

Payne Elementary is the district’s smallest school, with 231 students. Its enrollment has declined 28% over the past five years.

Clark has 240 students, down 32% over the past five years.

Cleaveland, one of the district’s traditional magnet elementaries, has seen enrollment increase slightly — about 6% over the past five years. But it’s still one of the district’s smallest schools, with 279 students.

Park’s enrollment has remained flat, with 337 students this year. But it is one of the district’s oldest schools, built in 1922.

Among Wichita’s 15 middle schools, Jardine and Hadley have some of the lowest enrollments. Jardine has 500 students this school year; Hadley has 507.

Bielefeld said the closures would affect about 2,000 students, who would be redirected to magnets or nearby neighborhood schools. The district began notifying families of the proposed change Monday and set up a hotline and email address to answer questions and concerns.

“They may love the school that their kids go to that’s closing. They may have gone there themselves,” Bielefeld said. “But we believe that we can make good, positive transitions to other schools in the district and have really good outcomes for kids in the long run.”

Depending where they live, students from Hadley Middle School would attend Hamilton, Marshall, Pleasant Valley or Wilbur next year. Students from Jardine would go to Mead Middle School or to Brooks STEM Magnet.

Students from Clark Elementary would be assigned to Caldwell, Beech or Allen Elementary. Students from Payne Elementary would go to Lawrence, Stanley or Woodman. And Park Elementary students would head to Irving, Washington, Harry Street or Linwood. Students at Cleaveland would go to one of the district's other traditional magnet elementary schools.

Bielefeld, who took over as superintendent last summer, said closings are unfortunate but necessary to deal with enrollment declines and staff shortages. Wichita’s enrollment has declined by more than 8% over the past seven years. Some of that came from declining birth rates and shifting housing patterns, but the COVID-19 pandemic worsened the problem.

Meanwhile, the district faces about $1.2 billion in needed building repairs and maintenance.

“We don’t want to close buildings. We hate that we’re having to do this,” Bielefeld said. “We’re choosing this because we’re choosing people over places.”

Wichita has 54 elementary schools, 15 middle schools, three K-8s, nine high schools and nine special schools. The average age of the district’s buildings is over 60 years.

Bielefeld said the district doesn’t foresee job cuts. Employees at closed buildings will be offered positions elsewhere, including schools where some classrooms are staffed with long-term substitutes.

School closings this spring may be just the first part of a larger consolidation. Cooperative Strategies, an Ohio-based consulting firm, plans to present options for a districtwide facilities master plan in May.

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.
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