Unity or Plurality? Bel Aire and Wichita

The question of whether all of Bel Aire will be within USD 259 or split between that district and USD 375 Circle turns on several points, as made clear in this article from the September 16 Wichita Eagle. First, though, the city’s public school enrollment is split, 130 for Circle, 820 for Wichita.

Wichita has talked about expanding. But how far?

The resolution before the City Council only suggests bringing the Bel Aire city limits into the Wichita district. But some residents are concerned Wichita schools will eventually push for larger boundaries, including land near Jabara Airport, where the Wichita district has expressed interest in building a technical magnet high school.

Then there’s competition-yet-no-competition between the districts:

Administrators for both districts say the issue shouldn’t be viewed as a case of one providing better schools than the other, but both have marshaled evidence of their districts’ strengths.

Circle and Wichita have since presented proposals for educating the young people of Bel Aire, though they insist they’re not in competition.

‘We are interested, obviously,’ Wichita superintendent Winston Brooks told business and community leaders this month.

It looks like, despite the no-competition theme, things got heated a while ago:

In January 2006, the two districts and Bel Aire’s city government started meeting to see if they could move the line half a mile in either direction, to avoid the possibility that a neighborhood would be split in half.

Those discussions became heated, and the council decided to remain neutral, said then-Mayor Brian Withrow.

Do school officials think with dollar signs in their eyes? You may wish that wasn’t the case, but they certainly aren’t immune:

Five thousand kids at $5,000 a head is $25 million,’ Brooks said, referring to a school-funding formula.

‘That’d be great revenue for us to have. I’m very interested in it. But we’re not in the business of taking over other districts’ territory. If they don’t want to do it, that’s fine with us. We’ll just educate the 49,000 (students) we already have.’

Both districts have made at least tentative plans for building in the area. One has already committed money:

Wichita will need to build schools in the northeast anyway, because of projected growth at Heights High School and Stucky Middle School, said chief operating officer Martin Libhart. The district is considering four sites in Bel Aire and the vicinity.

And also:

Last November, Circle voters approved an $18.8 million bond issue to build an elementary school at 29th North and Greenwich Road and to pay for other school improvements.

So far, the district has issued $10.8 million in bonds, said Superintendent Eliese Holt. People buying property in any area that was part of the Circle district when the bonds were issued — even if the land later changes districts –‘would still be responsible for that bond taxation,’ Holt said.

Finally, what we find the most interesting, the question about the social function of schools:

Those in favor of the resolution say a boundary change will bring Bel Aire together as a community. They imagine Bel Aire families gathering at their local high school to cheer for the same team, instead of sending their kids to more than a dozen public and private high schools.

‘I think having neighborhood schools is important,’ said Mayor Harold Smith. ‘Part of that is community. And convenience is part of it.’

A real estate developer agrees:

Officials with Plaza Real Estate, which markets properties in Bel Aire, said unifying the city under one school district would help future development.

Plans call for building up to 1,500 homes in the area over the next 10 years, said John McKenzie, Plaza’s president and chief executive.

‘I think what will hurt development more than anything else is splitting neighborhoods and splitting that sense of community,’ McKenzie said. ‘People want their children growing up together and going to the same schools.’

On the other hand:

Jennifer Connell, a Bel Aire mother of two who sends her sons to Circle schools, said she sees the current division as a benefit for the city.

‘Why not have both districts building (schools) to support your kids?’ she asked. ‘You’d have the best of both worlds.’

Council member Gary Breault agrees with that sentiment:

Everything I’m hearing is that people don’t want to change,’ said Breault …. ‘They like the way it is, and they like the choice.’

Could some economic self-interest on the part of the city be at work? The former mayor says so:

The possibility that it could take months or years to resolve the boundary issue worries residents, including Withrow, the former mayor, who said he thinks the Bel Aire City Council favors the resolution because it is anxious to sell land.

Withrow said he also fears that while the issue is unresolved, developers will have a hard time selling property in Bel Aire.

For Bel Aire kids: unity or choice?: Two School Districts, One Community, Wichita Eagle, September 16.

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