One of the main reasons given for the necessity of a bond issue in 2008 for USD 259, the Wichita public school district, is overcrowding. Too many students; not enough classrooms. Utilization numbers supplied by USD 259, however, show that there is a possible solution that district officials haven’t considered, as well as another solution that officials dismiss.
Here are the utilization numbers for USD 259: For high schools, utilization is 98%. For middle schools, it is 69%, and for grade schools, 86%. For the district as a whole, utilization is 85%.
No doubt the high utilization of high schools is a reason why the district wants to use bond issue money to build two new high schools. The low middle school utilization, however, offers an alternative to building new high schools: convert one or more middle schools to high schools. This is an especially viable and attractive option as the bond issue plan calls for building smaller high schools of 800 student capacity. That’s more like the size of existing middle schools that could be converted to high schools.
A solution to grade school overcrowding is the low grade school utilization overall, which means that students could be shifted to different schools to solve the problem. But a bond issue question and answers booklet published by USD 259 says that changing neighborhood boundaries isn’t a solution that can be used to solve school overcrowding. Why not? The schools that have unused space aren’t in the same part of the city as the overcrowded schools. The district makes it sound as though grade school students would be bused from crowded schools to uncrowded schools halfway across town. Evidently the solution of gently nudging boundaries towards the underutilized schools hasn’t occurred to them.
The district also raises the issue of feeder patterns. I think that this is not an important issue, except possibly to education bureaucrats.
I have no doubt that redrawing school boundaries is a tough challenge, especially if middle schools are converted to high schools. School board member Lynn Rogers said so in his recent editorial: “Schools that have seats available are not located next to schools without seats. To do this correctly, we would need to change four or five school boundaries to get relief to the school that needs it. You have to then consider the corresponding impact on feeder patterns, family traditions, neighborhoods, transportation needs and major highways. The list goes on.”
It’s a tough challenge, and one that the district will undertake when and if new schools are built. But they are unwilling to do it now in order to avoid the need to build new schools. Instead, they ask the people of USD 259 to pay more taxes. That’s a tough challenge for the taxpayers.