Despite some parents’ pleas, Wichita USD 259 board votes for closing 6 schools

Six Wichita schools will close at the end of the school year as part of an effort to close a $42 million budget gap. Two board members voted no over concerns about the process.

by Maria Carter

Wichita school board members voted 5-2 Monday to close six schools at the end of the academic year.

USD 259 faces a $42 million budget deficit due to falling enrollment, the end of federal pandemic relief funds and a $1.2 billion maintenance backlog.

Administrators estimate the district will save $16 million next year from shutting down Hadley Middle School, Jardine STEM and Career Explorations Academy, Clark Elementary, Park Elementary, Payne Elementary and Cleaveland Traditional College and Career Readiness Magnet Elementary.

Administrators said they focused on schools with low enrollment, buildings in poor condition and small classrooms. They also considered how easily students could transfer to nearby schools or similar magnet programs without adding large numbers of staff. 

But parents, teachers and students at Monday night’s meeting spoke against the closures, worried the costs for the 2,200 students at the schools were too high.

“We all stand together to plead with you to not do this to our children because, in my eyes, they’re worth more than $16 million,” Cleaveland parent Ashley Hawley said. 

Several speakers pointed to how the all-day pre-K programs at Park and Cleaveland helped struggling families. 

“If they didn’t have that when my son was going there, I wouldn’t have been able to work, and we wouldn’t have our apartment,” Park parent Lisha Watts told board members. 

Superintendent Kelly Bielefeld said that the state does not fund all-day pre-K and that the district was looking at whether it could afford to expand the program to the other schools. 

Board members Ngoc Vuong and Melody McCray-Miller were the lone no votes. They were not necessarily opposed to closing schools, but they were concerned about the short timeline, the limited public and staff input and whether all options had truly been considered.

McCray-Miller worried the district had not yet spelled out how it expected to close the entire budget gap, leaving $17 million still to be closed from program cuts and cash reserves. 

“We’re making a decision just banking on that’s how we’re going to balance this budget,” McCray-Miller said, “and I don’t think that’s fair to the public.”

Even those members voting for the closures said it was a difficult choice. Board member Kathy bond recalled what it felt like when the disctrict closed her son’s elementary school in the early 2000s 

“It felt like the floor opened up and swallowed me,” she said.

Parents may see test scores or grades drop temporarily, interestingly often before the school closes. In the long term, the research ranges from no difference to slightly better academic outcomes, especially when students transfer to higher-performing school

This article was republished here with the permission of: The Beacon