Elementary schools ‘ideal for housing’
Two of Iola’s three existing elementary school buildings could be converted into affordable living complexes for older adults, if voters eventually decide to build a new school, USD 257 Board of Education members learned Monday night.
Rudy Manes, a partner in Prairie Fire Development Group, of Kansas City, Mo., said McKinley and Lincoln would be ideal structures to convert into housing for adults age 55 and older. Jefferson’s structure and proximity to the downtown square makes it more suitable for office space, Manes said.
Prairie Fire uses historic and other types of tax credits and financing to convert old schools into housing. They’ve completed numerous projects, including former schools in Chanute and Baxter Springs. Manes recently visited Iola’s three elementary buildings and gave board members a preliminary report.
The district is studying whether to build a new elementary school, with a steering committee tasked with finding the best option to present as a bond issue next spring. The committee also has studied whether to renovate one of the existing buildings into a combined elementary school but that option likely would cost more over the long term because of maintenance costs. Plus, the elementary schools are landlocked so it would require the district to buy properties currently used for housing.
Board president Dan Willis said one of the most common questions committee and board members hear is, “What will happen to the old elementary school buildings?”
Manes toured the buildings and studied the local housing market. He determined a need for between 18 to 30 units. Prairie Fire uses historic tax credits to pay for the remodel, then asks local taxing entities to abate property taxes, typically for a 10-year period starting with zero tax and gradually increasing.
The company takes a building down to its skeleton, then rebuilds it while salvaging as much of the existing features as possible. Gyms typically are refurbished back to near-original condition and often are used as a sort of community recreation center with classes like yoga for residents and others.
“We want kids coming back into the building and having it be an active part of the community,” Manes said.
Classrooms are converted into one- or two-bedroom units. Some might have room for a washer and dryer, while some buildings will have a community laundry.
“We have to put it back to what it originally was. That’s where the classrooms really come into play. They’re set up perfectly to do housing in an apartment style.”
McKinley and Lincoln were ideal candidates for such a project, he said.
McKinley would be his first choice, even though it’s smaller, because it’s just one level. If the state limits the amount of historic tax credits it’s willing or able to offer, McKinley might be a more realistic financial option. It also could qualify because it’s located in a lower-income area. Renovating the building would improve the neighborhood and keep it from turning into an eyesore.
Lincoln features “really cool closets and hardware,” Manes said. Prairie Fire would keep those features, but would need to add an elevator because it’s a two-story building.
Prairie Fire doesn’t renovate buildings for office space, but Manes said he could suggest other construction companies that might be interested in Jefferson.
Prairie Fire typically contracts with a Wichita-based management company to oversee the buildings after construction. The facilities typically offer activities like wellness and dental clinics.
Residents must include at least one household member who is 55 or older, and rent is “income-restricted.” That means residents typically are working adults who meet an income threshold.
“You have to have income to qualify, but not too much,” Manes said. “They can afford everyday needs and put that money back into the community versus into housing.”
The steering committee is organizing community meetings to discuss plans with residents and narrow their choices before deciding whether to pursue a bond issue. Board members expect to hear a recommendation from the committee by Nov. 12.
Board members are considering whether to purchase a smartphone app called Lokdown, which could be used by teachers and staff to alert others in the building to serious threats such as an intruder or shooting.
Lokdown was created by Chad Doss, who said he wrote the app while sitting in his truck outside the Webb City, Mo., school where he worked just after the Sandy Hook school shooting in 2012. He’s since sold the app to school districts across the country.
It’s simple to use, which USD 257 board members said was their favorite feature. Any teacher or staff can issue a “lockdown” notification, which sends a text to all teachers, staff and administrators who use the app as well as local law enforcement. The app also allows for “alerts,” such as for a teacher to report someone who is acting suspicious, or medical problems.
The Humboldt school district uses Lokdown, while the Marmaton Valley district uses a similar app but is considering a switch to Lokdown, Doss said. USD 257 superintendent Stacey Fager said the districts would like to use the same app to make it easier for law enforcement.
Board members were interested in purchasing the app, which would cost $2,400 per year. That’s not very expensive, they said, but they want to see if the county would agree to help pay the cost. The county previously helped districts pay for other security concerns, with money to help buy surveillance cameras.
IN OTHER news, the board:
-- Heard a report from maintenance director Scott Stanley, who gave a quick rundown of various projects completed over the summer. Repairs were made to all buildings. Some buildings continue to have water leaks, but most have been resolved.
-- Heard an update on technology issues. A company charged with managing the district’s IT needs mostly has resolved connection problems after working with the district’s internet service provider. Complaints dropped by at least half and continue to decrease. Problems with wireless internet at the Bowlus Fine Arts Center also appear to have been resolved.
-- The board approved spending $70,384.50 to purchase a new school bus, with the state kicking in about $24,000 as part of a grant. The district had applied for the grant before, but this was the first year it qualified. The district needs to update its fleet of buses and will continue to replace older buses over the next three to four years.
-- Recognized Buck Quincy, a former teacher, coach and board member who died recently. His memorial fund will benefit the football stadium.
-- Heard a report from Tiffany Koehn, principal at Jefferson Elementary School. Koehn is new to the district and it’s her first principal job, so she has spent the first part of the school year getting to know the students, staff and parents. She talked about the ways she has tried to connect with students, such as reading “The Teacher from the Black Lagoon.”