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The Wichita school district could close six schools. How did we get here?

Hugo Phan
The Wichita school district has proposed closing two middle schools and four elementary schools.

The Wichita school board will vote Monday on whether to close two middle schools and four elementary schools. Leaders say enrollment is declining, and the district can't afford to operate all its buildings.

The Wichita school board will vote Monday on a plan that would close six schools — Hadley and Jardine middle schools, and Clark, Cleaveland, Park and Payne elementaries.

The move would require about 2,200 students to attend new schools in August. Employees from the vacated schools would have to find jobs elsewhere in the district.

Here, we answer some common questions about the plan to close schools and why it’s happening now.

The district wants to close schools to help reduce a roughly $40 million dollar budget deficit. How did we get here?

Wichita is facing a storm of unfortunate circumstances, including declining enrollment, aging buildings and the end of one-time federal pandemic relief.
The district was built for about 63,000 students, and it currently serves only 47,000, so it’s well under capacity.

The average age of Wichita school buildings is 60 years and many need significant repairs or remodeling — about $1.2 billion in deferred maintenance across the district.

Four of the six schools slated for closure are south of Kellogg. How were they selected?

Wichita Superintendent Kelly Bielefeld said he considered several factors, including a school’s enrollment over time, its condition, and whether nearby schools have room for more students.

Representatives of the Wichita teachers union have voiced concern about how the schools were chosen, especially because most are high-poverty schools.

“Without full transparency, there's a palpable fear that these decisions may inadvertently target the very families least equipped to voice their opposition — those working tirelessly across multiple jobs to support their loved ones,” said Michael Harris, vice president of United Teachers of Wichita.

The Wichita school board has held listening sessions and a public hearing, but the process is being fast tracked. The final vote on Monday will happen less than a month after the schools were first identified.

Is this problem unique to Wichita, or are we seeing this pop up elsewhere around the country?

Districts across the country are facing similar enrollment declines. Birth rates were headed down even before the COVID pandemic, and Bielefeld says it's expected to continue over the next decade.

“If we're not seeing any growth on the horizon, it kind of reinforces the decisions we're making, that we need a smaller footprint and (to) stop spreading our resources so thin,” Bielefeld said.

School districts in Kansas City, Kansas, and Lawrence have closed several schools.

The district has said that no employees will lose their jobs if the school close. So, where will the savings come from?

District leaders’ mantra throughout this process has been, “People over places,” meaning the proposed closures are the only way to avoid massive job cuts. Teachers and other employees at closed schools would be offered jobs elsewhere in the district.

Schools slated for closure are under capacity and more inefficient than larger schools, so savings will come from consolidating buildings and staffs.

If these buildings close, what's going to happen to them?

That’s unclear right now. District leaders say they don't plan to sell or repurpose them until they have a better plan for what they want to do districtwide.

Could the district find itself having to close more schools in the future?

Yes. Wichita hired Ohio-based Cooperative Strategies to look at demographics and enrollment trends across the district. The company is expected to present a long-term plan in May, and officials have hinted that it might include more closures or consolidations.

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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