Taking their case to the public
LAHARPE — In marketing, a general rule of thumb is that 20 percent of customers will always say yes to a new proposal, the middle 60 percent need some persuading, and the remaining 20 percent, well, don’t waste your energy.
Case in point:
Even though a mountain of evidence presented Tuesday night illustrated the needs and benefits of a new elementary school, the needle on Larry Walden’s radar never budged.
“I’m trying to figure out why we need a new building to educate kids when we’ve been educating kids for 150 years,” Walden said.
“Would you want your children to have the same education of 150 years ago?” countered Terry Taylor.
“We just proved to you that in 80 percent of the districts that built new schools, students’ test scores went up,” added Greg Shields.
“Don’t give me that,” Walden shot back. “That’s just one study. My God, what kind of liberal are you?”
Always eager to be the burr in the saddle, Walden reminded the audience of about 45 that the population of southeast continues to drop.
“What do you think it will be in another 30 years?” he asked.
“Hopefully more if we build a new school,” piped up Kristen Stotler.
“Well see, every little town has that argument, ‘If we build it they will come,’ but it doesn’t happen,” Walden said.
Not true, said Dan Willis, pointing to the growing enrollment Chanute schools have witnessed in the 10 years they have built new schools.
“There’s more kids in the Royster Middle School than there’s ever been before,” Willis said.
“Well, it’s one of the few exceptions,” Walden muttered.
Ryan Sparks said he believed in investing in Iola, including its schools, as evidenced by the numerous properties he owns in town.
“If I were concerned about what Iola’s future may look like in 30 years, I would never pull the trigger. I never measure a project based on 30 years from now, and the reality is, the kids we have today are worth the investment,” Sparks said.
Harry Lee added, “Somebody made an investment for us a number of years ago and I think it behooves us to do that for our children and grandchildren.”
“That’s our job as citizens of the United States,” said Shields.
“To take care of our children,” chimed in Stotler.
“We just need to do it smart,” said Lee.
WALDEN WAS not convinced.
“So the furniture we have isn’t good enough,” he queried Darin Augustine, a project engineer with SJCF Architects, Wichita, and charged with leading the night’s discussion.
“Some of it could be used, but teaching methods have changed,” said Augustine. “There’s a lot more collaboration between teachers these days that require more flexibility in furniture and equipment.”
Grabbing the back of a metal folding chair, Walden pursued, “So this chair wouldn’t be good enough in a new school?”
“No, sir,” Augustine said, “I wouldn’t want that chair in my classroom.” To which Walden shook his head.
THE NIGHT began in LaHarpe’s city hall where Augustine detailed how a new school could help the district meet its challenges.
First off would be the annual savings of $300,000 to $400,000 by consolidating the district’s three elementaries into one building. The savings would be realized through more efficient utilities; fewer staff; reduced overall square footage; reducing the redundancy in services, such having three cafeterias, services for special needs children spread across three buildings, and having certain teachers, such as for music and art, teach in three buildings, losing valuable time for instruction.
“We are actually overbuilt,” Willis said of the district’s current buildings. “Usually bond issues occur because districts need more space. We are trying to reduce our footprint from 127,000 square feet for our three elementaries (Jefferson, Lincoln and McKinley) to 97,000 square feet for K-5. That will be less to heat, cool, clean and try to take care of, but at the same time, the new classrooms will be, on average, larger by 200 square feet, providing a better learning environment.”
“It’s a no-brainer,” said Shields.
Since the 1988 bond issue passed to renovate Iola High School, the district has lost on average 20 students a year. Then, the district had 1,800 students. Today, it’s about 1,200 students.
“And state funding is based full time equivalency,” Willis said. “So even if the state is giving more money to education, it never makes its way to 257, because we keep losing 20 or more kids.”
Stacey Fager, superintendent of schools, said the current situation is untenable.
“When you look at the savings of $400,000 a year, it could make a world of difference for the education of our kids. This is what we could save to put into salaries, curriculum, and students.
We can’t afford to continues what we are doing, because we’re never going to get ahead this way.”
OTHER challenges that new schools would remedy include:
1. A lack of storm shelters. “Basements and gyms are not storm shelters,” Augustine said. True shelters are built to withstand 250 mph winds.
2. Secure entrances, including controlled entrances and locks on classroom doors. “We can’t prevent something happening, but hopefully we can slow it down,” with such mechanisms, Augustine said.
3. Failing mechanical systems. Districtwide, the heating and cooling systems are at the end of their lives. Roofs leak. Basements flood. Electrical systems are inadequate for technology needs. All lead to higher maintenance costs.
RAY MALONEY, LaHarpe, posited that while he’s come to accept that his hometown will never again be a hub of commercial activity, it doesn’t have to spell doom for the community, and, in fact, could be a silver lining.
“I don’t have a problem with LaHarpe being a bedroom community to Iola,” he said. “Maybe Iola needs to think about being a bedroom community to Chanute.
“Let’s let Chanute spend millions and millions of dollars on recruiting new businesses. They spent $6 million on that aircraft business Orizon.
“Iola can’t do that. La-Harpe’s not going to do that.
“But they’re going to need 700 people to work there. They don’t all have to live in Chanute. They can live in LaHarpe or Iola.
“Let’s give them a reason to come to Iola. Let’s build a new school. They’re going to have kids. They’re going to have young people.
“A new school would be an incentive for them to live here. Plus we have the lowest taxes around this area already.
“Let’s keep our tax base low, let’s build some affordable housing, and be a place where people can come to.
WHEN IT COMES to monies committed to education, Iola is ranked 14th out of 19 area school districts, with a total mill levy of 46.356 mills paid by property taxes.
To some, that may appear a good thing. We have no debt.
But to others, that zero in bond and interest payments shows a community not willing to invest in its children.
In comparison, Humboldt levies 55.463 in mills for its schools and has outstanding bond and interest payments of 7.517 mills; Chanute levies 54.844 in mills and has bond and interest payments of 13.213 mills.
“I understand the trouble of higher tax dollars,” said Willis, “But what frustrates me is that we have lost 600 kids over the past three decades. What frustrates me is that our teachers are paid so poorly. Chanute can pay starting teachers $6,000 more than we do. The people and talent we are losing is devastating.”
THE PRICE TAG for an all-inclusive new elementary is $24 million.
That means, the owner of a $75,000 home would pay an additional $9.96 a month in property taxes.
Over the course of meeting monthly, and sometimes twice a month, for a full year, steering committee members have whittled down possible sites for a new elementary from a dozen to two.
One possibility is virgin land just north of Allen Community College. The other is vacant land at the intersection of South Kentucky and Monroe Streets, one block north of Highway 54.
Both sites present opportunities and challenges, Augustine said. The 20 acres north of the college includes a pond and it slopes, requiring extensive fill.
The 14 acres to the east of town at one time bordered a zinc smelting plant and would require soil remediation in some areas.
Don Britt, who owns a parcel of the land there, said his acreage has since been cleaned. “It’s been given a clean bill of health,” he said.
Savannah Flory, La-Harpe, mentioned the site’s “walkability” with a nearby rail trail running across town linking to the prospective site.
Maloney said a new school there would “clean up the area,” and present a better face to Iola’s east entrance.
“I’d like to show it off. If we build something, I’d like people to see it,” he said.
School board members will make the ultimate decision on where a new school would be, Augustine said.
TRAVIS WILSON asked about the current needs at the middle school and high school and if they would be addressed in a bond issue.
They could be, Superintendent Fager said.
Two additional questions will be on the ballot next spring.
The first addresses a new science and technology center with a shared storm shelter to be used by middle school and high school students. Expected price is $5.1 million. This question includes an option of building a new cafeteria and kitchen, currently housed in the science building, for an additional $1.9 million. The buildings would be where the current transportation building is on the corner of Cottonwood and East Jackson and extend to the east. Currently two homes are for sale on the site.
The second question is to update the middle school heating and cooling system as well as its hot water system, for $2.8 million.
Fager said long-term, he envisions the entire block east of the high school to one day be the core of a new high school complex, with the middle school remaining as is.
“We’d have a hub of education where we could be sharing teachers grades six through 12, increasing efficiencies. And it’s a commitment to keeping the center of town strong, 20 years down the road.
“The needs always outweigh the dollars, that’s why we have to start planning now,” he said.
COMMUNITY input from meetings like Tuesday’s are critical, Augustine said.
“We’re still in the planning phase,” he said.
Walden, meanwhile, remained unconvinced of their merit.
“You guys are just a bunch of cheerleaders. Where’s everybody else? Why aren’t they here? I’ll tell you why. They’ve already made up their minds.”
Walden’s comments were not without merit. Of those polled, 96.5 percent said they would favor passing a bond issue to build a new elementary school, and two-thirds approved springing for the entire package including updates to the middle and high schools.
Another marketing maxim is that 80 percent of your sales come from 20 percent of your customers.
And whether he intended to help the cause, Walden’s steady nagging helped many others come to a clearer understanding of the ramifications of building a new school.
THE NEXT community forum is at 6 p.m. Oct. 29 at Lincoln Elementary School.
The public is encouraged to attend.