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School closing process is legal, based on facts, and difficult for all involved

By Kelly Bielefeld, Superintendent of the Wichita Public Schools

A recent guest column in the Wichita Eagle made baseless claims about the legality of the current school closing process being considered by the Wichita Board of Education, and called in to question the integrity of the data used to inform the recommendation made to the BOE by my administration. There is no question that this recommendation is difficult to consider. However, the author’s error-filled claims only serve to confuse and mislead citizens who care about public education and Wichita schools. I want to set the record straight.

First and most important, the process that we are using to make this difficult recommendation follows the law. A school district must publish notice of public hearing, which has occurred, then hold a public hearing, which will occur on Feb. 29. Though not required by law, the district is also extending the effort to gather feedback through a series of public meetings, as well as the online opportunity for parents and community to provide input. After the hearing on Feb. 29, the BOE will vote on the school closing resolution at its March 4 meeting.  If the BOE adopts the school closing resolution on March 4, district registered voters have 45 days to ask the Kansas Board of Education to review the decision. K.S.A. 72-1431 clearly outlines the process, and the district is following all required steps.

The recent column also misrepresented another state statute, K.S.A. 72-1439. The author suggested the district “must also inform the state Legislature and wait for a response before reassigning teachers and students in buildings they want to close.” But this is not what the cited statute says at all. The statute refers to a procedure that districts must follow if they intend to “dispose of a school building.” The district is NOT disposing (selling) anything at this time. Any decisions on the sale of unused buildings will be made only after the Facility Master Plan evaluation process currently underway has been completed. Again, the statute clearly outlines the process, which will be carefully followed at such time it is appropriate to the decision at hand.

The inaccuracies in this article don’t stop here. I don’t know where the author sourced his data, but the enrollment numbers are wrong. In the fall of 1970, our headcount was 63,811 students; in fall 2003, 49,065 students; and in fall 2023, 47,173 students. Full-time equivalent (FTE) data on which the funding formula is based represents a similar trend: In 2006-07, Wichita Public Schools’ FTE was 45,232; in 2023-24, that figure is 43,172.8.

Whether you consider headcount or FTE, there has been an enrollment decline that requires us to consider how to operate our business most efficiently, provide the best-possible educational opportunities for all of our students, and be responsible stewards of taxpayer dollars. I have provided facts to correct all of the misleading claims cited in the author’s article, and that information is available on our district web site (www.usd259.org/transform24). We are committed to transparency throughout this process.

Building closure is being recommended in lieu of cutting personnel, and is a difficult but necessary strategy to present a balanced budget for BOE approval in August. Three options were presented to the BOE at its January – cut personnel ($16 million Phase 2 target equals 230 teachers), close buildings, or delay the decision for a year which would require using most, if not all, available cash reserves. This would leave the district in an even more drastic decision-making position a year from now. The full conversation is available on our WPS web site (www.usd259.org/2425budget) for those who want to understand the complexity of the budget deficit and our work to present a balanced budget that prioritizes people over places.

Prioritizing people over places was a strong recommendation by stakeholders from whom extensive feedback has been collected. The Board of Education charged my administration to develop a balanced budget that supports this priority. Our people, and their importance to the young people we are entrusted to educate and support, are the focus of our 2024-25 budget. It is because of our commitment to people that these difficult building closing recommendations are being made.