Iolan: Don’t settle for ‘good enough’ schools
Another good-sized crowd attended Monday night’s meeting to discuss new schools for local students. With terrible acoustics, a weather-beaten gymnasium and a rattling ventilation system, perhaps Lincoln Elementary was the perfect venue to illustrate the condition of the town’s elementary schools.
Despite the impressive presentations by architects and engineers and school administrators as to the advantages of new schools, it was the comments of two citizens that stole the show.
Joe Hess, best known for his leadership with the senior citizens thrift store, gave a talk about the dangers of “good enough.”
“I was born on a farm, over across the line in Missouri,” he began. “For the first seven years I attended a one-room schoolhouse. As far I knew I was getting a good education.
“I was the only student in my class. In the whole school there was only seven or eight of us.
“In my 7th-grade year, the school closed.
“When I got to 8th grade I found out I didn’t know very much. Fortunately, I had a teacher who gave me a lot of extra help and time, and I put in a lot of extra effort and was able to pass 8th grade —barely.
“I made Cs and Ds in 9th grade and by working hard, I was making As and Bs by my senior year. I went on and finished college. I’ve been in education as a biology and chemistry teacher, high school counselor, school administrator.
“What we’re talking about here tonight, is if our people are satisfied. That this is what they know and consider it good enough.
“That’s what I thought when I was in that one-room schoolhouse. But I found out I was not very well-prepared. And even when I went to the high school, they didn’t offer biology, or chemistry or algebra. I had to do that as makeup when I went to college.
“So we can either let our students make up after they finish here for what we’re not providing, or we can put in what they need so they can be able to compete when they get out into the world.”
The crowd erupted in applause.
IT WOULDN’T be a school meeting without a plethora of statistics. A single, new elementary school for pre-kindergarten up through fifth-grade students could save, at a minimum, $300,000 a year due to increased efficiencies.
Compared to elementary schools in Garnett and Chanute, energy costs at Iola’s elementaries are double, said Stacey Fager, superintendent of schools for USD 257.
The district pays $341,000 a year in utilities.
With a consolidated school, the district will save on a reduction of staff, the elimination of duplicating services in three buildings, including three cafeterias and three gymnasiums, as well as saving valuable time for instruction.
“With three elementaries, there’s a lot of turnover on a year-to-year basis,” Fager said. “I’m confident we could staff our buildings more conservatively,” with one facility.
In discussions with Chanute school administrators, Fager said they reported their savings in going from five to one elementary were “beyond their wildest expectations. That’s why they are able to invest more in their students’ educations. That’s why their salary schedules are so much higher.
“We divert so much money simply on the upkeep of old facilities.”
BECAUSE all three of the town’s elementary schools are in varying states of desperation, steering committee members — volunteers from the community — have come to the conclusion that a new elementary is the highest priority.
Other priorities include a new heating and cooling system for Iola Middle School, a new science and technology center for the high school as well as a storm shelter to be shared by the two schools, and a new cafeteria and lunchroom for the high school.
MEMBERS are hoping that all four of these options can be presented to USD 257 voters next spring.
The middle school and high school measures will be contingent on voters first approving a new elementary for about $24 million. Because the state will carry 35 percent of the bond and interest costs of the loan, that price tag would mean an additional $10 a month in district property taxes for a family that owns a home valued at $70,000.
If the new science and tech building, kitchen, cafeteria and storm shelter were approved, they would be situated along north Jackson Street between Cottonwood and Colborn, where the district’s maintenance building sits as well as five homes.
The district has purchased one of the homes, two others are listed for sale, leaving the purchase of the remaining two homes open for discussion.
This is all part of “looking down the road to see where we can take education in Iola,” said Fager, in regards to the district developing a long-term vision.
“This is part of the commitment to keeping our schools in the internal part of Iola. Of keeping the middle school and high school where they are and building around them to create a campus feel,” he said.
To replace the current science building is estimated to cost $5 million. If it were coupled with a new cafeteria and kitchen, a culinary arts program and storm shelter, the price is $7 million.
New mechanical systems at IMS tally $2.8 million. “They’re the ones longest in the tooth,” said Darin Augustine, an engineer and project manager with SJCF Architects of Wichita.
A NEW elementary would be of a different configuration compared to Iola’s Lincoln, Jefferson and McKinley. Instead of long hallways dotted with small classrooms, a new school would include a pod concept where clusters of classrooms surround a larger meeting space. The classrooms would be larger, from the current 750 square feet to 950 square feet.
As for where a new elementary would be situated, steering committee members have narrowed the list from 20 to two.
One site is vacant land north of Allen Community College. It consists of 20 acres with another 10 acres available, if needed.
The other site is 15 acres on Monroe Street, one block north of U.S. 54 at the intersection of Kentucky.
The only “caveat” with this site is that “some soil remediation will be necessary,” said Augustine, because of contamination from when zinc smelters were in the neighborhood more than 100 years ago.
As to how much, that will not be known until tests by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment are conducted.
When put to a vote — excluding those on the steering committee and any school staff — attendees were split 50-50 as to which site they preferred.
DEBBIE Bearden asked what possible income the district could reap from the sale of the three elementary schools — Lincoln, Jefferson and McKinley. At last week’s school board meeting partners with Prairie Fire Development Group of Kansas City, Mo., said they would be interested in converting Lincoln and McKinley into senior housing and affordable housing.
Fager said the board hadn’t viewed the properties as possible revenue streams. “That hasn’t been a vision of the board,” he said. “It’s been more of how can we repurpose them.”
Fager added Prairie Fire would be able to secure tax credits unavailable to the district for things such as replacing windows and “refurbishing the buildings to their former glory.”
The gymnasiums in each school would be preserved for public use.
Mary Kay Heard said that knowing the schools can be repurposed will make a difference to how people vote on the school bond issue.
“That kept a lot of people from supporting it in 2014,” she said. “These opportunities will make people feel better about supporting a new school.”
Augustine said the repurposed schools in Baxter Springs, “are full and have a waiting list.”
THE SECOND person to receive full-throttled applause was Dr. Charles Wanker, a physician with the Community Health Center of Southeast Kansas.
Wanker has lived in Iola three years, after serving 10 years in the military during which he and his family moved four times.
Wanker described the transient life.
“Every time we moved — myself, my family or my friends — the first thing we asked about of a community was what its health care was like and second, what its schools were like.”
In trying to attract physicians to Iola, Wanker said its schools present a challenge.
“I can tell you, we’ve had five physicians now come to the area, half of them had kids.
“They didn’t ask us what our practice was like, but what our schools were like. They were all very interested in the school system.
“When these people tour the community, they don’t meet the teachers, or the principals, or the administrators, they just see the buildings.
“When they look 15 miles to the south in Chanute or 30 miles to the north in Garnett, they see new schools. Many of these people will never see the inside of the building, only its outside, and from that they’ll draw their own conclusion as to what this community’s commitment is to education.”
“I’m for the bond issue,” he concluded.