Now the hard part: Convincing voters Iola needs a new elementary
For those who have devoted almost one year studying whether the local school district needs new schools, the answer has become clear. Of course.
What’s not so obvious, however, is how to convince district voters to approve a $25 million bond issue next spring to build a single, new elementary school, which, by the steering committee’s estimation, is the district’s greatest need.
Since November 2017, members of an education steering committee have studied in depth the needs of the district’s schools including its three elementary schools, middle school and high school.
Though all are in need of major repairs and upgrades, the most critical are the three elementary attendance centers — Jefferson, Lincoln and McKinley.
EQUIPPED with facts, figures and three potential site plans devised by SJCF Architects, Wichita, committee members are now ready to gather public input through a series of meetings and get-togethers.
The first is at 6 p.m. Oct. 9 in LaHarpe.
Several committee members have been proactive in finding answers to questions frequently posed by area citizens.
Chuck Apt, Iola attorney, took it upon himself to research whether a new school can positively affect a child’s education. At their meeting Tuesday night, Apt said the website schooldiggers.com was helpful in showing that based on test scores released by the Kansas Department of Education that the majority of students attending new schools showed improved test scores.
Apt took a random sample of schools across the state and compared student test scores over a number of years before and after their districts had constructed new schools. Overwhelmingly, the change in environment from old to new resulted in positive results.
“I believe this strongly suggests that with new construction, there is improvement,” he said. “The test scores did improve where new construction took place.”
In his research Apt also found that since 2006, Kansas voters have approved more than two-thirds of the 203 school bond issues put up for election.
Apt said a frequent concern he’s heard is what is to be done with the existing elementary schools if a new, single attendance center for grades kindergarten through fifth grade is to built.
Darin Augustine, a project engineer with SJFC, said a decision for each facility would be made during the three-year time frame during which the new school will be built from passage of the sale of the school bonds. Augustine said one possibility is to convert a school into apartments for senior citizens, as has been successfully done in Ottawa and Baxter Springs. Representatives from Prairie Fire Development Group are due to meet with school board representatives to discuss their project in Baxter Springs, said Dan Willis, president of the USD 257 board of education.
Stacy Fager, superintendent of schools, said apartments in Baxter Springs “are full and have a waiting list.”
“We will not let these buildings sit idle,” Willis said.
FOR THOSE who insist the current elementary buildings merely need to be remodeled, Willis agreed that’s a possibility, but the operational savings of consolidating into one building would be lost.
“We can remodel these buildings,” he said, “but it doesn’t make our district stronger as far as putting things in the classroom for kids.”
Willis estimated the savings to the district by consolidating the current elementaries would be $500,000.
In regards to the special education programs, Willis recounted a conversation with Doug Trester, director of ANW Cooperative, who estimated the savings of having all the students, teachers and resources in one location would be in the neighborhood of $200,000. According to Trester, it costs three times as much to educate a special needs student in Iola as compared to other school districts because of resources, students and teachers being spread among so many buildings.