“It’s going to be close”: Wichita dealing with short timeline to convert school to winter shelter

Wichita is hoping to buy Park Elementary school and turn it into a shelter for people who are homeless by wintertime. But the Wichita school board voted last night to delay a vote on a potential sale until late June.

KMUW | By Celia Hack

The city of Wichita’s timeline to convert a former school into a homeless shelter by winter is growing tight, as some partners in the project are requiring more time.

Last week, the city proposed buying the shuttered Park Elementary from Wichita Public Schools to turn into a no-barrier shelter by late fall or winter.

The school board was supposed to vote on a potential sale of the school to the city for the price of $1 on Monday night. But school board members voted unanimously to delay the vote until June 27.

“Now that the city has released their comprehensive plan for their multi-agency center, I would like to receive additional information before making a decision,” said school board member Hazel Stabler, who made the motion to delay.

Wichita’s City Council postponed its vote Tuesday morning as a result of the school board’s decision. The city needs the school board to agree to a potential sale before it can access the building to estimate what sort of repairs and renovations are required.

Council members asked whether the city would have enough time to renovate the building, given the setback.

“I understand our hands are tied here, but I just don’t want us to get caught pushing this down so far, not being able to do some work between now and the beginning of July,” said council member Mike Hoheisel. “… We really want to have this up and going by late fall, winter.”

Assistant city manager Troy Anderson said that the city is doing what it can on the project without the school board’s agreement, such as engaging the community. But he said the project still faces a tight timeline.

“Realistically, it’s going to be close,” Anderson said. “We’re having conversations with our development partner two and three times a week. ‘What do we know now? What do we know now? What do we know now?’

“That shot clock is counting down.”

But Diane Albert, the vice president of the Board of Education, said that the school district’s role is to focus on the facility.

“When we’ve got a board that has additional questions, that’s going to take priority over the city’s timeline,” Albert said. “The board has questions and those need to have answers to them. That way our decisions are made well.”

Albert said she did not know the main questions the board wants answered. She said the school board is planning a workshop that’s open to the public in which the project and potential sale will be discussed. Albert said the district is hoping to have City Council members present at the meeting.

If the school board does agree to sell the building to the city, the property must first go to the Kansas Legislature. State statute dictates that a body known as the Legislative Coordinating Council gets the first option to acquire former school buildings.

After the school district notifies the legislature of its decision to sell the building, the coordinating council has 45 days to make a decision on whether to buy it. Only if the state turns it down can the city purchase the building.

City Council members asked whether that process could be expedited or whether the city could communicate to legislators that a decision needed to be made quickly.

City Council members asked whether that process could be expedited or whether the city could communicate to legislators that a decision needed to be made quickly.

“I would hate to have another body taking their time, trying to figure that out, while we’re sitting here waiting and ready to start working on the winter shelter,” said council member Brandon Johnson. “And we have to wait on that.”

The city also has to ensure the building’s zoning is changed to allow a shelter on the property. Staff estimate that could take 45 to 60 days. A zone change requires advertising, neighbor notification and a presentation to the planning commission.

Anderson said the city can ask the school district whether the zoning case can take place while the sale of the property is still being worked out, in order to move the project along more quickly.

Neighbors of the potential shelter also have a litany of concerns they want the city to address, such as the potential for decreased property values and higher crime rates. Cheryl Golub, who said she’s lived in the Midtown neighborhood, implored the council on Tuesday to choose another location for the shelter.

“If one drives the streets of Midtown, it has many, many social services, nonprofits, ministries, city services for the poor, housing for poor and underprivileged. More than most neighborhoods in Wichita,” Golub said.

“Midtown has definitely done great, and it’s absolutely done more than its part. It’s now time for another city area to share and help the city with a solution.”

But Wichita council members say they don’t have other options.

“What concerns me is I don’t know if we have a plan B for this winter, other than Park,” said council member J.V. Johnston.

This article was republished here with the permission of: KMUW