Facing a $42 million budget gap, Wichita will close several schools at the end of this school year

photo by: Suzanne Perez / KMUW

Wichita Superintendent Kelly Bielefeld says closing some elementary or middle schools is the only way to avoid massive job cuts.

WICHITA — About a half-dozen Wichita public schools will close for good at the end of the school year, as the district deals with declining enrollment and a massive budget shortfall.

Wichita Superintendent Kelly Bielefeld said four to seven schools will likely close. Officials plan to present a list to the school board at its next meeting Feb. 12, and board members plan to vote on closings before spring break in March.

Wichita faces a $42 million budget gap, and leaders say closing buildings is the only way to prevent job cuts.

Susan Willis, chief financial officer for Wichita schools, says resources are spread too thinly over the district’s 90-plus schools. Wichita’s enrollment is trending downward. Meanwhile, the district faces about $1.2 billion in needed building repairs and maintenance, and staff shortages continue.

“It’s hard to even say the words, right?” Willis said. “Because it’s emotional to say the answer that solves those three problems is: Reduce the number of school buildings.”

Wichita is the state’s largest district, but enrollment has been declining since 2016.

“We are a district built for 63,000 students. We currently educate 47,000 students and change,” Willis said. “By definition, we are underutilizing square footage in our buildings, specifically elementary and middle.”

Consultants hired by the district told board members last month that the district has too many small elementary schools and can’t afford to maintain them all.

Nearly half of Wichita’s 54 elementary schools have fewer than 350 students, which is inefficient and costly to maintain, consultants said. Twelve elementaries have fewer than 300 students.

Bielefeld said a number of factors will go into deciding which schools to close and consolidate, including enrollment trends, the building’s age and condition, staffing levels and a school’s location within the district.

“There’s not an easy way to do it,” he said. “We have to have schools geographically spread out around the city, just for efficiency purposes … So we want to take an objective, data-based approach in making these decisions.”

Wichita has 54 elementary schools, 15 middle schools, three K-8s, nine high schools and nine special schools. The average age of the district’s buildings is over 60 years.

Wichita’s enrollment has dropped by more than 8% over the past seven years. Some of that came from declining birth rates and shifting housing patterns, but the COVID-19 pandemic worsened the problem.

Districts around the country will soon face tough decisions about closures and cuts as they face what educators call the “fiscal cliff” — a storm of financial chaos brought on by declining enrollments, aging buildings, and the abrupt end of federal pandemic relief funds.

Data prepared by researchers at the Brookings Institution shows that over a four-year period that includes the pandemic, about 12% of the nation’s public elementary schools and 9% of middle schools lost at least one-fifth of their enrollment.

Denver school officials closed 16 elementary schools last year as a way to tackle plunging enrollment, and that was just the first step in a larger consolidation plan.

Bielefeld, the Wichita superintendent, said building closures are part of the natural cycle of school districts. In 2012, as part of budget cuts and boundary changes, Wichita closed four elementary schools – Bryant, Emerson, Lincoln and Mueller – as well as the former Northeast Magnet High School at 17th and Chautauqua.

Bielefeld said the district doesn’t foresee job cuts. Employees at closed buildings will be offered positions elsewhere, including schools where some classrooms are staffed with long-term substitutes.

“If we can take some of those staff and reallocate them in a better way, we have a better chance of every kid in the district having a certified teacher,” he said.

Wichita teachers approved a contract last summer that includes 5% pay raises for the next two years. The district used about $20 million in COVID relief funds to help finance the salary package.

In addition to closing schools, the district plans to scale back its longtime AVID program, which promotes college and career readiness. The program, now offered in all seven comprehensive high schools, will be limited to North, South, East and Heights.

Bielefeld said school closings this year would save about $16 million, or the equivalent of 230 teaching positions. Board members will consider using cash balances to plug the remainder of the budget shortfall.

This year’s closures may be just the first part of a larger consolidation. Officials with Cooperative Strategies plan to present options for a districtwide facilities master plan in May.

— Suzanne Perez reports on education for KMUW in Wichita and the Kansas News Service.


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