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    Becky Nilges, center, part of a steering committee investigating USD 257 facilities, speaks at Monday’s USD 257 Board of Education meeting about a proposed new elementary school. Accompanying Nilges for the presentation were, from left, Greg Shields, Morgan Dieker and Savannah Flory. REGISTER/VICKIE MOSS
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    Iolan Ryan Sparks addresses USD 257 Board of Education members Monday about a steering committee’s recommendation the school district build a new elementary school. REGISTER/VICKIE MOSS
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    The crowd listens to the presentation.
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    Morgan Dieker listens as Savannah Flory talks about how she opposed a 2014 bond issue but now supports efforts to build a new elementary school.
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    Darin Augustine with SJCF Architecture reviews the plan.
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    Members of the steering committee discuss the proposal.

New school proposals shared

The Iola Register

Members who have studied Iola schools for the past year are hoping good things come in threes.

Because that’s what they proposed to USD 257 board of education members Monday night.

At the top of the list is a new elementary school to be positioned at the east edge of Iola for grades preschool up through fifth.

Second is a new science and technology building for high-schoolers.

Third is an upgrade to the middle school’s heating and cooling systems, plus its hot water tank.

Because a new elementary is deemed the most critical of the three, members stipulated that if it fails to pass voters’ muster, then neither of the two lesser issues is up for approval.

Committee members suggested the elementary be situated at the intersection of Monroe and Kentucky streets, one block north of U.S. 54, and encompass 15 acres. The site includes 4-5 acres of playground, five times that now available to elementary students.

The school is designed with learning pods and includes a media center, storm shelter and its own kitchen and cafeteria. The price tag is $24 million.

The site offers a multitude of advantages, members said, including catering to residents in Gas and LaHarpe, spiffing up an otherwise depressed area of town, and being close to an existing walking and biking path that bisects Iola from east to west.

Moving fifth grade classes from Iola Middle School to the new elementary accomplishes two things: Frees up space at the crowded middle school and places the fifth-graders with students who are more on their social and emotional levels.

 

REACHING the conclusion took a bending of wills among the 22 members of the committee who have studied the state of district schools for more than one year.

Some undertook the task unwillingly.

Becky Nilges said when she was first approached to participate in April of 2017, “I thought, no way. I had had my fill.”

Nilges put her heart and soul into the 2014 campaign to build a new school campus north of town. It failed by a 2-to-1 margin.

“But I realized I had learned a lot from that effort, and I could share that knowledge with those who were going to take the baton forward.

“And I would bow out.”

Nilges, however, stuck it out, precisely because one question — “Why is this so important to me?” —  kept dogging her throughout the process.

“And my answer should be everyone’s answer: It all comes down to the kids. Our responsibility is to give our children the very best education that we can. To give them the tools they need to equip them for the future. And the tools have changed. I think sometimes people forget that.

“We need to give our students an understanding of the value of education, and how that will take them through the rest of their lives.

“When students walk into a school, they know their teachers and principals, and hopefully their parents, expect the very best from them.

“And students should be able to expect that from us. We need to give them our very best, which is why I’m still here trying again.”

“It’s not about economic development. It’s not about hanging on to the past, and whether a building has a certain history for our community. What this is about, is finding a way to provide the very, very best way we can educate our kids for the future.”

 

WHEN OTHERS remarked Nilges’s speech was a hard act to follow, she quipped, “I’ve had four years to work on it.”

Savannah Flory, of LaHarpe, said that when she joined the committee, she was “pretty certain” a renovation of existing schools would be good enough. “But I hadn’t done the research,” she said.

After a year of inspecting district schools and talking with school administrators and teachers, Flory is now convinced new construction is necessary.

Flory admitted she voted against the 2014 measure — “I’m a closeted no-voter” — primarily because of its location north of Iola, which would have doubled the distance of her commute. Flory also said she wasn’t keen on the idea of an all-inclusive school campus.

As a mother of two daughters ages 1 and 6, as well as a business owner, Flory said she felt obligated to get involved as well as learn “why this is so important for our kids.”

Morgan Dieker, a local pharmacist and 2009 graduate of Iola High School, said she had two main concerns with existing schools. First, she views the elementary schools as a health hazard because of their high levels of mold which can aggravate those with asthma and allergies.

“In the beginning I was for a remodel. I liked the neighborhood schools,” Dieker said. “But I was surprised to learn remodeling didn’t necessarily mean replacing old with new. In some cases it could mean new paint and carpet but there could still be mold issues.”

Second, the high school science building is outdated.

Dieker recalled the first time she saw a chemistry lab at the University of Kansas and the difference from that provided at IHS.

“I was shocked to see what a lab actually looked like and how it functions,” Dieker said. “I would be lying if I said I was completely prepared to enter a chemistry class at KU or any other university.”

“I was fortunate enough to have a teacher who made up for it in different ways. But as far as the hands-on part, I didn’t know until I got to KU that biology didn’t mean you watch videos on the Discovery Channel.

“My classmates were years ahead of me,” she said.

 

SCHOOL BOARD member Mary Apt asked Scott Stanley, director of operations, “Is it fair to say that this new building would be replacing one of the most inefficient buildings on the campus?”

Stanley said yes, adding that in its 60 years it’s received no significant upgrades.

Nilges said that a tour of the science building left her flabbergasted.

“I was shocked to find out they were holding classes in the labs. I thought they had been abandoned.

“I would challenge anyone in this school district to take a tour of that building and not come out embarrassed,” she said.

Dieker said her interest in serving on the committee also stems from a desire for the community to feel pride in its schools, something that “I think our community lacks a little bit.”

 

GREG SHIELDS, Iola barber, and with “no dog in the fight other than the future of my business,” said he regarded serving on the committee as “my civic duty as a citizen of this town to look after our kids. And what we have tonight it not perfect, but it’s pretty awesome,” he said of the committee’s proposals.

Ryan Sparks said that over the past year he has changed his mind numerous times on what he regarded as the solution.

“I came in pretty sure how things needed to be, but about eight months in, it was derailed. What I’ve learned is that this is not about us, it’s about the kids and we’re very passionate about the future of our kids.”

Discussions with other residents also influenced members, especially as to the location of the new elementary. The other location proposed, whittled down from a possible 20 sites, was on 20 acres just north of Allen Community College.

“While I didn’t at first agree with them, I couldn’t deny hearing them,” Sparks said of others’ opinions, and eventually was convinced.

Taking a lesson from the failed 2014 bond issue to heart, the steering committee focused on input from community members rather than administrators. They offered a series of public meetings to discuss needs and wants with residents. That led the committee into unexpected directions, Sparks said.

“Not a person on this committee is getting the plan that they initially wanted, but by our last meeting we voted unanimously on our plan tonight,” Sparks said.

 

THE SCIENCE and technology building would include a storm shelter to be shared with IMS students. Because it would be situated on Jackson Avenue facing to the south and be just a stone’s throw from the middle school, committee members hope the concept finds favor.

Nancy Toland, a member of the school board, expressed her concerns of the shelter’s distance from the middle school and high school.

“As a former teacher, it really makes me queasy transferring students from two buildings into a safe place,” Toland said. “That’s the only issue I have with all of this.”

Committee members agreed, saying the optimal solution would be to have a storm shelter incorporated with each building, but additional costs prevented them from suggesting it.

“All I can say is that it’s better than what we’ve got,” Sparks said. “If we’re not talking dollars, we could do that.”

Ray Maloney, LaHarpe, said he has learned that the current elementary schools do not serve as FEMA-rated storm shelters.

“Just because they have thick walls doesn’t do the job,” he said. “Roofs are more important.”

Looking long-range, say 10-15 years, the goal is to have a new high school adjacent to the new science and technology building.

The cost of this plan is $7 million. The total square footage is 21,000 for chemistry, biology, physical science, culinary arts and art classes plus a cafeteria and kitchen. Razing of the current maintenance building on the corner of Jackson and Cottonwood would help make space for the new complex.

As for the middle school, a new HVAC system and hot water tanks is expected to cost $2,940,000. All are well past their expected lifetimes and costing the district in terms of efficiencies and repairs.

 

BECAUSE SCHOOL bonds are paid by local property taxes, the owner of a $70,000 home could expect to pay an additional $120 a year if the new elementary school is approved. For a new science and technology building, tack on an additional $36 a year; and upgrades for a new HVAC system at IMS would result in an additional $14.50 a year.

The state of Kansas would provide 35 percent of the cost. For the new elementary, that adds up to $8.6 million from the state, and $15.6 million carried by local taxpayers.

 

BOARD members refrained from making any decisions Monday night, leaving that for their next meeting on Dec. 10.

The Iola Register

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