Finding common ground
Between my husband and I, we have 58 years of education. We came to this town for the kids. I want to see it keep growing. I’m tired of us voting no.
— Iolan Donna Houser on an upcoming school referendum for USD 257 voters
Despite a plethora of statistics, nothing could keep down the emotion and energy Tuesday night in a wide-ranging discussion about the April 2 school bond issue.
About 125 local residents battled torrential rains to attend the forum, A Conversation on our Schools and Their Future, at the Bowlus Fine Arts Center and sponsored by The Iola Register.
Even more significant were the more than 1,500 views of the event that was live-streamed on Facebook.
But the forum was about even bigger numbers: a $25.5 million bond issue to build a new elementary school, with options of $7 million to build a new science and technology building at the high school and $2.8 million for heating, ventilation and cooling at the middle school.
Ten panelists answered questions posed via Facebook and by those in the audience. The panelists were from local and regional education systems, an architectural firm helping the district with the bond issue, a developer who specializes in renovating historic buildings for use as housing, and experts in soil remediation.
The questions generally fell into about six categories: Costs and taxes, soil remediation and site selection, what to do with existing buildings, timeline and future expectations, safety issues and how a new school will improve education.
Costs, savings and taxes
The owner of an average home in USD 257 can expect to see their property taxes increase by about $10.48 per month to pay for a new elementary school, steering committee member Ryan Sparks said in response to a question posed over Facebook by Rita Berntsen. That figure is calculated on a $70,000 home, which Sparks said is the value of an average home in the area.
The additional cost for a new science and technology building would be $2.91 per month; for the HVAC system, another $1.18.
In response to a question posed by Wendy Froggatte over Facebook on the decision by the district to use property taxes to finance the bond issue instead of sales taxes, Sparks said steering committees struggled with the decision. Ultimately, they decided to ask for a property tax increase so as not to impose a burden on local business owners, especially retailers, who could lose business to other communities if the sales tax were raised, he said.
The state will pay 35 percent of the cost of the projects, USD 257 Superintendent of Schools Stacey Fager said, in response to a question posed by Jim Gilpin. That’s less than the 51 percent the state would have paid had the 2014 school bond issue passed but is still at the top of the list in what the state will contribute after reworking the formula in 2015.
Officials have estimated a new elementary school that combines those at McKinley, Jefferson and Lincoln would result in an annual savings of $300,000 to $500,000 because of increased efficiencies including lower utility costs, lower maintenance costs and less duplication of services. Several questions concerned how the district would spend that money.
Most likely, the savings would be reinvested into education and teacher salaries, Fager said.
It’s possible the district could use the savings to pay off the bond early, school board president Dan Willis said in response to a question by Greg Shields. However, it’s also possible the district could need to replace its high school or middle school in the future. It’s also difficult to predict what might happen, should the area gain or lose property value.
“We can’t obligate future boards, but I think it’s a goal we should have in mind,” Willis said.
Others wanted to know how much it will cost to purchase land, but Willis said those negotiations are ongoing and private. Four property owners have parcels within the allotted 15 acres.
Doug Tressler, second from left, director of the ANW Special Education Cooperative, speaks at a forum Tuesday at the Bowlus Fine Arts Center. Among the other panelists were, from left, Joe Dom of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, Steve Parsons, interim USD 413 superintenent of schools in Chanute, and Iola USD 257 Superintendent of Schools Stacey Fager.
SAVINGS aren’t always measured with money, ANW Special Education Cooperative Director Doug Tressler and Chanute school superintendent Steve Parsons said.
Tressler, whose answers elicited expressions of surprise from the audience more than once, pointed to changes he will be able to make if Iola’s three elementary schools were combined into one. Costs for things like transportation and duplication of services would decrease, allowing him to increase teacher salaries and be able to better compete for hard-to-find special education teachers like speech pathologists.
It also would make the district more appealing to potential staff members, with better classrooms for students who have unique physical or mental challenges.
In response to a question over Facebook by Kyle Joy as to whether the proposed gymnasium would include locker rooms, administrators said they weren’t included in the current plans but perhaps with coordination by the city — whose facilities in Riverside Park are closed due to flooding last fall — the subject could be broached.Though seemingly unrelated to his field, Tressler added: “Do you know why you don’t have locker rooms for (an elementary school) gym right now? They’re my classrooms. I have three locker rooms that we use for classrooms. That’s how tight space is,” Tressler said. “Those are the things that are happening in your buildings.”
“I have one speech pathologist under the stairwell at Lincoln. That’s her office.”
CHANUTE schools saw savings from increased efficiency when the district switched from four neighborhood schools to a single elementary in 2008, Parsons said. But bigger changes came from having an equal playing field for all students, regardless of what part of town they lived in. Teachers were able to collaborate which improved educational efforts, he said.
“Now, 11 years later, people have a hard time remembering the concept of neighborhood schools. It’s all about Chanute Elementary. One school,” Parsons said.
Shannon Ferguson-Bohm, president of SJCF Architects, said a new elementary school likely would open in August 2021, if the bond issue passes. The science and technology building at the high school would take less time to complete and likely would open in the fall of 2020. Crews likely wouldn’t start work on replacing the HVAC system at the middle school until late spring and summer of 2020.
Questions also were raised about future plans, such as if the district would ask for another bond issue to replace the high school at some point. SJCF helped the district work through a master plan that leaves open the possibility for future improvements, Fager said.
It’s possible the district could look at replacing the high school, which is more than 100 years old, and even the middle school, though Fager said that might be 20 years or so in the future. The steering committee tried to develop a plan that would allow some flexibility, while also giving future boards a general guideline for future development, said school board president Dan Willis. That could include changes to properties in the vicinity of the high school and middle school to create a centralized campus.
“That isn’t the conversation we’re having now, but I’m really looking forward to that day,” Fager said.
The current proposal calls for the science building to be razed and the area converted to a parking lot if voters approve a new science and technology building. Parking space is needed for activities near the high school and middle school, Fager said. Whether it remains as a parking lot when further needs of the high school are addressed, that’s anyone’s guess, he said.
If approved, the science and technology building will house about 25 percent of high school classrooms, Fager said. It will be located closer to the middle school, which could offer new opportunities for collaboration between the schools and teachers.
If a new elementary school and new science building are constructed, it will give the district flexibility to tackle other projects, Fager said. The district spent more than $3 million over the past 11 years on “big ticket expenses” like roof and structural repairs to maintain its aging facilities, he said. The district has a list of about $6 million worth of projects it hasn’t gotten to yet. On Monday, the board approved spending $65,371 to fix a broken chiller in the high school’s air conditioning system, and 96 of its 102 HVAC systems are working past their life expectancies.
“Our needs outweigh our available money to fix what we have,” Fager said. “If we get three buildings into one that’s under warranty, if something breaks down they’ll come and fix it.”
Do you know why you don’t have locker rooms for (an elementary school) gym right now? They’re my classrooms. I have three locker rooms that we use for classrooms. That’s how tight space is. Those are the things that are happening in your buildings.
— Doug Tressler, ANW Special Education Cooperative Director
The biggest unknowns come in the area of soil remediation, though Shane Strope, a hydrogeologist with Terracon, said it won’t take long to conduct soil assessments if the bond issue passes and the district secures the land.
Strope was confident the property can be safely remediated. She offered a slide that showed how much of the property was once the site of a foundry more than 100 years ago, and pointed out that the central and eastern parts of the property were never developed.
Still, how long it will take, how much it will cost and who will pay for it remain unknown.
Joe Dom, with the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, echoed Strope’s assessment and the efforts to work with the EPA to clean up the site. They were hesitant to say whether they thought the EPA would pay for those costs, but said the district’s plans had expedited the process for the state and EPA.
“It’s got a lot of potential and we’ll make sure it’s a good site,” Strope said.
Strope said she had previously assessed the area as a subcontractor for another company and is very familiar with the area. She said she was very excited about the potential for development.
“Can it be developed safely? Absolutely. This is absolutely doable,” she said.
Liz Cox asked what would happen if things fell through and the site became unavailable.
Willis said the school board would ask the steering committee to reconvene to determine a new location. Committee members, however, said they were committed to the site and believe it is the best possible location for a new elementary school because it’s central to the district, including the towns of Gas and LaHarpe, and has the potential to spur economic development in a blighted area of town.
Rudy Manes with Prairie Fire Development Group, explained how federal tax credits help his company restore historic buildings for use as housing. Manes said he’s interested in converting at least two of the three existing elementary school buildings into housing. So far, he’s considered the buildings for senior citizen housing.
The special tax credits allow his company to gut and remodel historic buildings, but only under certain restrictions that require the building’s structure to be restored to match the time period under which it was first constructed. The interior would include modern plumbing and HVAC systems, with modern apartments in former classroom space.
Fager said it was a goal of the district to find options for existing buildings and Prairie Fire’s goals appear to fit nicely with community needs.
“I know the pride a lot of people have in our buildings. They want to see them functional,” Fager said.
Chanute sold two of its former elementary schools to churches, kept one and sold another to be renovated into housing, similar to Manes’ proposal. The old high school was razed and the property given to the city for a recreation center. Like Iola, Parsons said, the Chanute community wanted to keep its old school buildings viable.
Iola USD 257 Board of Education president Dan Willis, right, speaks at a forum regarding an upcoming school bond referendum at the Bowlus Fine Arts Center. Also taking part in the discussion were 257 United committee members Ryan Sparks, left, and Savannah Flory.
A new elementary school would feature modern safety features like a storm shelter that could withstand a Category F5 tornado and would be handicapped-accessible. Entrances to the building would be controlled, either using a vestibule or directing visitors directly to the office before they can access any other part of the school. All classroom doors would have intruder locks with cameras and a modern security system.
“Working with the steering committee, I can tell you safety and security was their number one priority,” Ferguson-Bohm said.
Sidewalks would keep students separate from vehicle traffic, with separate lanes for buses and other motorists like parents.
The district already uses shuttle buses to transport children who live a significant distance from their school, Fager said. It’s likely that service will continue or expand.
“Right now, we have five facilities in town and we work very closely with our police department on security,” Fager said. “With one elementary school, you can maximize security.”
The single elementary school also would provide a dedicated area for the school nurse. None of the current elementary schools have a room for students who are sick.
“They’re sitting outside the office with a trashcan and everyone can see them there,” Fager said.
The school also would include a kitchen and cafeteria, which would reduce the time it takes to prepare meals and transport them to various schools.
A better education?
A new elementary school would serve about 600 students. The new school would have a smaller footprint than the three combined schools, but with larger classrooms of about 950 square feet as opposed to the current 600 to 700 square feet. Ferguson-Bohm said the new school would be more efficient because it’s not duplicating services, such as for things like offices, libraries, cafeterias and gymnasiums.
It’s also difficult on students to switch schools every couple of years, she said. With a school for students from pre-K to fifth grade, they’ll become more like a community from the ability to be in one location for up to six years. Being in one location will also also allow teachers throughout the school to collaborate on themes and projects.
The savings from such increased efficiencies can be put back into the classroom and will make it easier to recruit teachers, steering committee member Savannah Flory said.
As one of the final points, Flory brought the question back to the numbers. She pointed to the district’s reading scores as an example how education improved when the district invested in facilities. When the district transitioned from neighborhood schools to grade-level attendance centers, administrators used the savings created by the change to purchase the Lexia Learning System to improve primary reading skills. Before the transition, only 19 percent of kindergarteners met grade-level reading goals, with 61 percent of first-graders and 73 percent of second-graders at that benchmark. Now, after just a few years, 100 percent of kindergarteners and first-graders, and 96 percent of second-graders have met that goal.
THE MOST emotional moment of the evening came near the end, when Iolan Donna Houser tearfully spoke in support of the bond issue. It’s been 27 years since the district passed a bond issue, and a new building has not been built since the current science building was constructed in the 1960s. Since then, multiple bond issues have failed.
“Between my husband and I, we have 58 years of education. We came to this town for the kids,” she said. “I want to see it keep growing. I’m tired of us voting no.”