Wichita school district takes heat for not involving more people in its $2.1 billion plan for fixing buildings

Teachers and families want USD 259 to tell them about its strategy for fairness as the district plans to consolidate schools.

By Marcus Clem

Shana Balton expects a bigger say before endorsing Wichita Public Schools’ big buildings plan.

“The board needs to be willing to meet the community,” she said, “so that board members can understand how we are feeling.” 

Balton, a teacher at Pleasant Valley Middle School, learned more about the long-range, $2.1 billion plan for school district buildings during a school board workshop Thursday. 

She said she wants people to give input and be heard, rather than be told what is happening and expected to approve or reject it. Balton said the district often has this “sit ‘n’ git” approach. 

The school board is likely to put a $450 million bond measure on the November ballot, but it has yet to say when it will decide on whether to put the choice to voters.

The plan would shut down 11 schools by 2028. It would rebuild seven schools and add two new ones. 

Luke Newman, the district’s director of facilities, told the board that deferred maintenance will end up costing $3.59 billion. This would fix all of the holes, leaks, crumbling bricks and deteriorating concrete in Wichita schools.

That’s up from the $1.2 billion price tag the district got from consultants earlier this year. Newman said the district doesn’t have the money for that work.

Luke Newman, Wichita Public Schools director of facilities, aims to reduce the district’s enormous maintenance costs. (Marcus Clem/The Beacon)

“If we do not pass a bond, there is no Plan B,” he said. “We will still need to consolidate buildings. There is no other way to catch up.” 

Whether or not the bond issue passes, Newman said Wichita Public Schools must close some campuses. He said the choice, then, is to rebuild and renovate to lower operating costs, or start closing schools without opening new buildings.

Balton said she agreed that the district faces tough choices, but that the school board needs to take advice from the people affected by the decisions. 

“I have an issue with the determination of what schools are being chosen, because of the lack of representation of people of color,” Balton said. 

L’Ouverture Elementary School is likely to be closed by the end of the decade; its students would be sent to a new school. (Maria Carter/The Beacon)

Ty Davis, founder of Gap Bridgers Inc., a nonprofit focused on healing race and class divides in Wichita, attended and still lives near L’Ouverture Elementary. It’s one of the schools listed for consolidation.

Ty Davis advocates for healing race and class divides in Wichita, with a focus on neighbors of the 67214 ZIP code. (Submitted photo)

L’Ouverture serves the 67214 ZIP code, among the poorest in Kansas, with a median household income of about half of Wichita as a whole. Some 66% of residents are Black or Hispanic, according to the U.S. Census Bureau

“When schools close, people may not have the resources to adapt,” Davis said. “It depends on where the new school is located. It depends on if the bus is accessible. A lot of times, these are single-parent homes.” 

Davis, like Balton, said the key will be making sure kids going to new schools are accepted, not bullied as outsiders. 

“We don’t want to cause more stress and friction on single parents and poor families who may be struggling already,” Davis said. “We have to emphasize quality education for the underprivileged.”

The teachers’ union for Wichita Public Schools gives the school district higher marks for informing the public. 

“That level of transparency hasn’t existed in the past,” Vice President Michael Harris of the United Teachers of Wichita said. “Now, we have to take advantage of it.”

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