Students join debate on new schools
(Editor’s note: This is the second article in a series related to the April 2 USD 257 school bond referendum. To read the first one, click here.)
Jon Miller, a senior at Iola High School, turned 18 a couple weeks ago. Miller is excited that this milestone enables him not only to cast his first official vote but also that it will decide a USD 257 school bond question on April 2.
The issue is whether to approve $25.5 million to build a new elementary school, with options to build a new science and technology center, with a new cafeteria, at the high school for $7 million and new heating, ventilation and cooling systems for the middle school for $2.8 million. The bond question is arranged so that voters must agree to build the new elementary school before they can approve either or both of the other options.
Miller doesn’t yet know how he’ll vote. As a student, he sees the need for improvements. But he’s also worried about saddling taxpayers with additional debt as he leaves for Bowdoin College in Maine next fall.
“We could have the best facilities in the world but at what cost? I know the facility is old and it could definitely use an update, but I think it’s a little bit unfair for 51 percent to vote for it and force the other 49 percent to have to pay for it, too,” Miller said. “If I were staying in Iola and were self-sufficient, I would probably vote yes. But I know that’s not everyone’s position.”
MILLER reflects the uncertainty even high school students feel when it comes to deciding whether to build new school facilities.
Sophomore Henry Lohman agrees the district needs a new elementary school — he remembers the mold in Jefferson — but says he’s satisfied with the current science building. He travels to other schools for forensic competitions and sees the nicer, newer facilities they have.
“A lot of them are prettier than ours,” he said. “Of course, I want our schools to look nice but I don’t see the need for it.”
Fellow sophomore Bobby Lewis said, “If it will help students advance, then I think it’s a worthwhile investment.”
Lewis said his classes at the science building have left him with a negative impression.
“I have a sense of an older building, like nothing really ever changes. I get a sense that it’s been like this for a long time,” he said.
Senior Bret Plumlee has taken science and engineering classes at the current science building, and is an aide to science teacher David Daugharthy. He thinks a new science and technology building is necessary, and he’s seen problems with outdated equipment and infrastructure. Recently, he plugged his Chromebook charger into an electrical outlet at the science building and it exploded. He doesn’t know if the fault lies with the electrical outlet, the charger or the Chromebook but it’s easy to blame the building.
“I think it’s really outdated,” Plumlee said.
Miller also sees advantages with a new science and technology building. He’s taking a robotics class, which currently is squeezed into a classroom at the main IHS building. Students pack their robotic equipment into a closet with other items. A competition ring to practice their skills leaves little room to maneuver.
“It’s kind of a mess but we’re making it work,” Miller said. “We have a long way to go on our robot and we’re trying to do some really complex stuff. Every minute matters. The time it takes to haul a bunch of stuff out of the back room and clean it up again, and having to walk around in a cramped space is time that could go a long way on our project.”
Miller attended a meeting of the steering committee that studied the need for new facilities and recommended the current school bond proposal. Because he travels to the middle school for band class and always finds himself removing layers of clothes because of temperature fluctuations in the building, he agrees with their recommendation for a new HVAC system there. He also thinks IMS is too cramped. Building a new elementary school would allow the district to move fifth grade classes out of the middle school, providing more room.
“I’m going to have to do a lot of thinking before I vote,” Miller said.
Iola High School senior Jon Miller
EDUCATORS say they see the advantages of new facilities more clearly.
David Daugharthy, who teaches chemistry and engineering classes at IHS, echoed Miller’s complaints about the robotics classroom. The classroom isn’t much bigger than the 12 foot by 12 foot competition ring used by 21 students and their assorted robots.
“We’re very cramped,” Daugharthy said. “A new building would be huge for the engineering classes. It would allow our engineering department to take off.”
The science and technology building also could allow the district to expand its Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs, officials have said, perhaps with programs like CNA or automotive classes. Family and consumer education classes, like culinary programs, could utilize a kitchen in the building.
But the building also would improve Daugharthy’s ability to teach, he said. The current science lab isn’t very functional because it’s outdated and very large, he said. The classroom where he teaches is in a separate space, which makes it difficult to supervise students.
“Most chemistry labs have classrooms inside them,” he said. “I have a lot of square footage to cover. Kids work at different paces so I might have one group doing something in the lab and kids in the classroom, who all need to be supervised.”
That’s a safety hazard, he said. He’s also worried about the outdated equipment during experiments, which use or create harmful gases that aren’t well-ventilated by the current systems. Some of the building’s gas ports don’t function properly and the building has plumbing issues.
“As teachers, we’ve learned to work around it. It’s a functional lab space, but there are limitations.”
AN ELEMENTARY school that combined preschool through fifth grade students would streamline many educational programs, curriculum administrators with USD 257 said.
Students learn at their own level, elementary instructional coaches Jenna Higginbotham and Briana Curry said in a combined statement. Teachers often need access to resources to help a student at a lower or higher level than his or her peers.
“Combining these materials will give teachers more options,” they said.
Angie Linn, curriculum director, said that also saves costs, because the district sometimes needs to purchase multiple copies of resources for each of the three elementary buildings.
Having all elementary teachers and staff in one building also would allow them to join forces, both to learn from each other and to participate in group learning activities, the three women said. They pointed to a “Buddies” program, which pairs fifth grade students as mentors for kindergarteners. That could be expanded at other grade levels.
“Older students can earn chances to volunteer in younger students’ classes to be a role model or read a story aloud,” Curry and Higginbotham said.
Some staff must travel between buildings for classes like art, music, speech, physical education and more. That time could be spent working with students, they said.
A new school also will build relationships between students, staff and families, they said.
“Currently, with switching buildings every two years those relationships can’t foster beyond the years the student is in the building. Students and teachers will see each other in the hallway and it will be nice for students to have familiar faces to see,” they said. “Another benefit would be that students can feel more comfortable in their surroundings, rather than feeling some anxiety about having to start all over in a new building, with new staff members.”
A combined school also could be easier for parents who have children at different grade levels. Parents may be more likely to participate in activities like family reading nights if they didn’t have to divide their time or attend multiple events.
That applies to siblings, who would have an opportunity to see each other in the hallway or at recess.
“As we have it, those connections are missing,” Higginbotham and Curry said.