Sparks watches committee find common ground
“In a small town, it’s so easy to take sides. This process showed me it doesn’t have to be that way. We can come together. It showed me how strong this small town can be.”
More than a year ago, the first meeting of a steering committee to study USD 257 schools brought together dozens of residents with different ideas on what was needed. They seemed to sort themselves into three groups.
The “yes” group supported the failed 2014 bond issue that would have built new elementary and high schools for $50 million. They hoped to try again.
The “no” group opposed the 2014 bond issue and thought the district’s facilities could be improved, rather than building new. Others thought nothing need to be done.
Ryan Sparks says he fell somewhere in the middle. He didn’t like the plan to move the schools out of the city, among other issues.
But when the proposal failed and supporters vowed to try again, Sparks knew he needed to play a role.
“I didn’t feel like my criticism was fair if I wasn’t willing to put in the work to find a solution,” he said. “I made a promise that if the opportunity arose, I needed to jump in. I felt like it was my duty to be part of this committee.”
Sparks attended every steering committee meeting and soon emerged as one of the leading voices of a new plan, one that will ask voters for $25.5 million to build a new elementary school, with options of $7 million to build a new science and technology building at the high school campus and $2.8 million to improve heating, ventilation and cooling systems at the middle school.
This time around, Sparks knew his priorities.
“I wanted our schools to stay in town,” he said. “I knew we had to be very careful in regards to money. I knew it needed to hit the greatest needs head on without throwing fluff in there.”
He thought the best site to build a new elementary school would be near the Allen Community College campus. He’d grown up in that area and saw advantages in having a school near the college.
Not everyone on the committee agreed. In fact, very few of the committee members agreed on anything during those first few meetings.
“Very early on, it was obvious how far apart we were,” Sparks said.
EVER SO SLOWLY, the group began to come together. Members made their case for various proposals, such as whether to renovate existing schools or build new, what type of school to build, what buildings had the greatest challenges, where to build a school, how much it might cost, what to do with existing facilities, and on and on. They listened and debated. They talked with friends, family members and neighbors.
Sparks graduated from Iola High School and experienced firsthand the benefits of a renovation effort at that building after a bond issue was approved in 1988. Except for college, he’s lived here his entire life. He’s now married with two young children.
His personal ties to the community and his children are part of the reason he felt obligated to take part in the campaign.
As he’s talked with members from across the community about the bond issue, Sparks said he’s come to realize it affects everyone, whether they are young parents like him or senior citizens, business owners or farmers.
Gathering a broad spectrum of viewpoints helped steering committee members put their own aside.
“The cool thing about this committee, we kind of put our personal biases aside. We felt like we had listened to the community,” he said. “We took baby steps. We pursued a lot of options before we came to the proposal we have now.”
For Sparks, compromise meant giving up on wanting a new school on a site near the college. As he talked to others in the community, he began to see the benefits of the site at Kentucky and Monroe streets. It’s closer to the communities of Gas and LaHarpe, closer to residential areas in Iola, and potentially could spur further development to the east entrance of town.
Att their final meeting in early November, a year after the committee began to meet, members voted unanimously in favor of the proposal that will appear before voters April 2.
“In a small town, it’s so easy to take sides,” Sparks said. “This process showed me it doesn’t have to be that way. We can come together. It showed me how strong this small town can be.”
And even though he didn’t fully support the 2014 proposal, Sparks now sees the impact of its failure. It’s taken five years to get to a new plan. If the current bond proposal passes, completion of the facilities could take up to two years.
“What we’ve done is kick the can down the road for seven years. That’s seven classes of students who did not benefit from the type of facilities they need,” Sparks said. “That’s the cost of failure.”