Business, college leaders weigh in on schools plan
What became clear to members of a school steering committee Thursday afternoon was that each time they present their plans to a group of the uninitiated, they’re going to have to start at square one all over again.
When they began meeting nine months ago, it’s not an exaggeration to say those who volunteered to study Iola schools could probably not agree the sky is blue.
On Thursday, they met with a crowd of local businessmen and women and a large contingent from Allen Community College who came armed with questions:
• Why build new as opposed to renovating existing schools?
• What plans do you have for the abandoned buildings?
• What proof do you have new schools will improve education outcomes?
• How will new schools provide better efficiencies?
• How will new schools free up money to pay our teachers better?
• How can we afford new schools?
Because they’ve hashed out those very questions, committee members were not deterred.
“We had to put all our biases behind us and concentrate not only on what we thought would benefit the kids and the community, but also what we thought the community would support in terms of cost,” said Ryan Sparks of the nine-month process.
“Looking at over 20 scenarios, we reached consensus that a new elementary was the best place to start. We couldn’t ignore the savings in operations, utilities and personnel with one elementary.
“What we have today is nothing like that plan of 2014,” Sparks said, referring to the failed school bond issue that had a new high school and elementary school on the northern outskirts of town.
“Everything is going to be in town. No question. We’ve been very cautious with not trying to hit a home run and go for everything, but to get the process started,” in what they view as an eight-year master plan.
Thursday’s meeting was to see whether committee members have even reached first base.
“We need to know what your thoughts are,” said Chuck Apt. “We have a generic plan that has been whittled down. We need to know what you as the business leaders in the community think. We need your involvement to make sure we’re on the right path.”
It wasn’t love at first sight.
Bill Walden, local pharmacist, wondered if a kindergarten through eighth grade building had been considered.
“We’re shrinking, not growing,” he said of the district’s population base.
Such a scenario would likely eliminate the need for a middle school, which currently includes grades five through eight.
Stacey Fager, superintendent of USD 257 schools, said that because teachers in the middle school and high school frequently collaborate on subjects and share resources, that they had not investigated merging the middle school with the elementary school.
“We expect to see even more sharing between the middle school and high school faculties going forth,” Fager said.
Harry Holloway, a member of the Gas council, asked why renovation of the existing elementary schools was not favored.
Apt responded that a plan to renovate the elementary schools would cost $13 million, with efficiencies of $30,000 a year. Building a consolidated elementary for pre-kindergarten up through fifth grade would result with an estimated savings of $300,000 a year, plus reduce the district’s footprint by two buildings.
Doug Tressler, director of ANW Special Education, said one elementary building would save on its services.
“We currently have specialists having to travel from building to building,” he said, referring to the district’s three attendance centers, McKinley, Jefferson and Lincoln.
Morgan Dieker, a pharmacist, said her initial interpretation of what renovation would include was off base.
“In my mind, remodel meant we’d gut the building, get rid of all the mold, all the health and safety issues, and essentially have everything new.
“I was surprised to learn that’s not what remodel means because of affordability issues. Instead, it can mean only new paint, or new carpet. So, when you’re thinking remodel because you want to keep the existing school in the same neighborhood, well we won’t be able to address some of the health issues that come with those schools. In that sense, our current schools are impacting our children’s education because they are suffering. As a health professional, I’ve seen it.”
Another scenario steering committee members considered was consolidating the three attendance centers into two at the current sites of either Lincoln or Jefferson for a cost of about $23 million.
Those plans would have included, again, light renovation to existing structures, plus new construction.
“But we still faced bad traffic flow, a shortage of space, outdated floor plans, the need to acquire existing homes, and the fact that we would still be landlocked,” said Sparks.
Rebecca Bilderback, in charge of admissions and marketing at ACC, wondered what would happen with the abandoned schools.
“As someone who lives across from an abandoned nursing home for now three years, this concerns me,” Bilderback said, referring to the former Iola Nursing Center on North Walnut Street.
“Those buildings either won’t be there, or they will be occupied,” said Darin Augustine of SJCF. “That’s our policy. An empty building is not good for anybody.”
Beth Toland, an educator in early childhood education at ACC, wondered whether steering committee members had looked at data verifying new schools improve education outcomes.
“That data is higher test scores,” she said.
Toland objected to asking for a show of hands from members of the audience as to whether they objected to building new schools.
“That assumes you feel safe,” to raise your hand, she said.
Knowing from newspaper accounts that the steering committee has settled on a new consolidated elementary as opposed to renovating existing schools, already puts those of another opinion on the outside, Toland said.
Rather than make their opinions noted, perhaps some simply sat on their hand.
Apt replied that the experts have told them new schools would provide an “optimum environment for education.”
Toland also voiced concern that having so many children — about 600 in grades pre-kindergarten up through fifth grade — in one building seemed excessive and could compromise their education.
Current designs proposed by architects feature a building with four distinct wings to separate the grade levels.
Fager said the new design would mean, “we won’t have to shut down the gym to have lunch,” — currently, the gymnasiums in the attendance centers also serve as their cafeterias — and that the district’s aging schools are a disincentive to recruiting good teachers.
“The most important indicator for success of a student in the classroom is the teacher. Everything else is a distant second,” he said. “When it’s a challenge to recruit teachers because of your facilities, you’re at a disadvantage right away.”
Seeing a savings of $300,000 a year in terms of efficiencies with a new school could go toward teacher salaries, Fager said.
“If you can divert resources from fixing old buildings to paying someone to be an educator, then all of a sudden you find the best people. We have great teachers here, but it is challenging to retain them and to recruit new.”
Fager referred to a recent conversation with Steve Parsons, interim superintendent of Chanute schools, who said they faced the same scenario 15 years ago.
“They had five aging elementary schools. They made the investment and now they have new facilities,” he said.
Fager said Chanute’s schools continue to draw professionals its way.
In a recent conversation with Rich Profitt, former superintendent at Chanute, Fager said, “He told us there were five engineers working on the new aerospace plant in Chanute who were carpooling each day from Wichita. The superintendent took them on a tour of their new elementary school. All five, with their families, have moved to Chanute.
“Those are things that can grow a community. Those are things that can improve our schools,” he said.
Lonnie Larson, an executive with Sonic Equipment, said good schools have always worked as a recruitment tool for prospective industries,
“Back in 1975, when Gates Rubber Company was looking at new sites, Iola’s schools and the community college was a big star in their book to locating here,” he said.
“If we don’t keep moving in that direction, we’ll die. We should be doing this for the good of our kids. That’s our responsibility as a community, to make sure our children get a good, quality education. And that, in effect, impacts business. It affects people we might like to recruit at our business.
Bill Maness, a former manager with Haldex Brakes, who now works in economic development for Thrive Allen County, echoed Larson.
“The majority of the management team at Haldex lived in either Chanute or Fort Scott because of their schools. The applicant is looking for the job, but the family is looking for a place to live, and schools speak volumes.”
Ken McGuffin, a former educator and administrator, said his concern was what appears as a lack of involvement by young parents to help carry the momentum needed to pass a school bond issue.
“I don’t feel like we’ve ever successfully built a fire under the people with kids.
“They listen, but they’re not impassioned,” he said. “Study groups are not going to do it. How can we get that silent majority not only educated, but also fired up?”
SJCF presented three plans, “pared from 50 or 60, from 15 sites,” according to Rick Brown, project engineer. The plans included:
Build a new consolidated elementary school that includes its own storm shelter and cafeteria on city land on North Cottonwood Street adjacent to the Cedarbrook Golf Course. The site would require Cottonwood Street to be extended up to Oregon Road.
Cost — $26.8 million
Site — 25 acres
Build a new consolidated elementary school just north of ACC on Cottonwood Street.
Cost — $25.4 million
Site — 20 acres
Build a new consolidated elementary school on North Kentucky Street just north of Landmark Bank on State Street.
Cost — $25.2 million
Site — 15 acres
Possible additional questions on the ballot:
1. For $2.8 million, a full upgrade of heating and cooling systems at Iola Middle School.
2. For $5 million, a centrally placed storm shelter to serve IHS and IMS students that would also serve as a new science and technology center for high school students, and a new kitchen.
Neither of the additional questions, if posed, could pass if the main question to build a new elementary school failed.
Bret Shogren, a financial advisor with George K. Baum & Co., Wichita, briefed members on what the cost of a school bond issue would mean to those who pay property taxes.
School districts use general obligation bonds to structure debt incurred by renovations or new construction. Investors buy the bonds and are paid back, with interest, over time. The way those payments are calculated for taxpayers is through mill levies.
One way to look at that debt is to view it as an investment in a community. It’s been 26 years since voters have approved a bond issue for either renovation or new construction for the school district.
“You’re not alone in looking to improve your schools,” said Shogren. About 70 percent of the schools in Kansas have outstanding bonds with the average mill levy increase at 13-15 mills.
Currently, USD 257 has no debt and has a levy of 46.356 mills to support the district.
Humboldt school district levies 56.999 total mills. Of that, 7.517 mills are used to pay bond and interest payments.
Chanute schools levy 54.844 total mills with bond and interest payments coming from 13.213 mills.
If USD 257 were to ask for a $30 million bond issue over 25 years, that would mean the owner of a $75,000 home — the median home price in Iola — would pay an additional $14.76 in property taxes each month. Or 50 cents a day.
A $20 million bond issue requires a mill levy increase of 13.72 mills; an estimated increase of $118.34 a year in property taxes.
Shogren noted Marys-ville just passed a $26 million school bond issue to be repaid over 30 years.
“Interest rates continue to be so low that the longer period to pay off debt remains feasible,” he said.
Included in the funding picture is 35 percent in state aid.
THE PLAN to build north of the college fell flat with a few who live in the area as well as some who work at the college.
Walden, who lives on North Cottonwood, said the speed limit is often violated.
Betty and Ed Miller testified the street is already busy.
Sparks wondered if an additional entrance from Miller Street would ease that problem.
ACC instructor Terri Piazza said she did not think it wise to place elementary age students so near to college students.
“We have 19-, 20- and 21-year-old students,” Piazza said, “And we have issues that come with those students. I’m really surprised that this committee is considering putting young students in the same vicinity as these students.”
Shiloh Eggers, a vice president with Landmark Bank, echoed those concerns.
Jon Wells, an instructor at the college and Iola mayor, disagreed.
“Many of our students are education majors, and we encourage these students to go in their classrooms,” he said.
Piazza countered that those students are being supervised and are there for a specific purpose.
Wells answered that college students typically serve as positive role models for younger generations.
“They send a message to stay in school. And youths are much more eager to listen to people closer to their age,” he said.
Having grown up just across the field from the college, Sparks said, “I always thought they were good neighbors.”
Terry Sparks wondered if Cottonwood could be widened to accommodate traffic concerns if a school were situated north of the college.
Sid Fleming, city administrator, said, “The biggest problem with that would be money.
“All our estimates are $1 million a length mile. You could do it, because you don’t have houses right up next to the road, but it would add to the cost of the project.”
As for the city-owned land to the north of Miller Road, many feared it was too close to the site doomed in the 2014 election and would carry a negative perception.
As for the site more in town, soil remediation would be needed for about “an acre or so,” where zinc smelters existed 100 years ago. SJCF officials did not seem fazed by the process.
“It would postpone the timeline a bit, but not significantly,” said Shannon Bohm of SJCF.
Ray Maloney, LaHarpe, said he favored the site because it is more to the middle of town and would fix up a tired area of town.
Eggers said putting the school there “could put pressure on the community to improve the area.”
The Mo-Pac biking and walking trail also leads right up to the sight, Maloney said.
Savannah Flory, La-Harpe, also favored the site, saying “I feel it’s more walkable because it’s in a more residential area, and that might reduce traffic a little bit,” from parents driving their children to school.
Some worried the intersection at Kentucky and East Street as hazardous for children to cross.
A vote by those present confirmed the popularity of the Kentucky Street location.
The majority favored the site.
FROM HERE, steering committee members plan to schedule meetings throughout the year with various segments of the public to gather their input.
“This is just the beginning,” said Dan Willis, president of the USD 257 board of education.