Board appeals for broader input



November 15, 2017 - 12:00 AM

Returning to a topic that was brought into stark relief at the previous meeting, the USD 257 school board on Monday addressed questions surrounding its facilities improvement project and extended an invitation to members of the community who would like to attend a steering committee meeting set for the evening of Nov. 20.
Responding to the board’s decision to employ the Wichita-based architectural firm of Schaefer Johnson Cox Frey to lay the groundwork for a potential bond issue, Iola-resident David Toland  last month expressed disatisfaction in what he perceived to be, thus far, a comparatively closed, overly district-led process  — one that tempts the same mistakes that led to the divisive failed bond issue of 2014. He asked that the board halt their momentum and allow a group of “non-school-related” individuals to, in consultation with a wide swath of area residents, arrive at a “community-led” proposal that could then be presented anew to the district.
On Monday, board president Dan Willis, the head of the facilities planning committee — which has been gathering as a group since the spring with the intention of finding the most widely-accepted solution for the district’s infrastructural woes — explained that his motivation ever since beginning this process has been to include as many voices from the community as possible, and that invitations to join the facilities planning committee were extended to representatives from every segment of local society, not merely school personnel. (In the end, though, USD 257 personnel were among the preponderance of the residents who accepted the invitation.)
The committee that was formed, said Willis, reading from a prepared statement, included community members who were in favor of 2014’s bond issue as well as those who stood in opposition. This time, said Willis, they found agreement. The consensus that emerged from a half-year’s worth of facilities planning meetings is “that there is a strong desire to make improvements [to the schools]” and a preference to “move forward quickly.”
“The board has no malice toward any particular group or plan and has different leaders in place than three years ago,” continued Willis. “As divided as 2014 was, we feel it best to use a party” — SJCF — “that was unaffiliated [with] the last bond issue. … We believe they can be a neutral navigator in this process and will be able to mitigate [the] division that occurred in 2014.”
Beyond providing needs assessments, building evaluations and preliminary project costs, explained Willis, SJCF will facilitate meetings with various community groups in an effort to garner the widest possible input.
Willis himself continues to apply for more community participation and has in recent days mailed scores of letters inviting residents to participate in next week’s steering committee meeting. “A lot of people want to criticize,” said Willis, “but they don’t want to participate. I’m hoping that changes.”
Outgoing board member Tony Leavitt made a special point of praising Willis. “The amount of effort that you as a new board president have put into this, I think should be commended. And I don’t think that it was stated properly [last month] during the presentation that we got” — by Toland — “and also the [account] in the paper” — by this reporter — “that these people were hand-picked. You bent over backwards to get a good group in here. You’re trying again. … I just hope that this next effort is a little more fruitful than what the first one was.”

The steering committee meeting will take place Nov. 20 at 5:30 p.m. in the Allen County Courthouse assembly room. The public is invited. Call 620-228-8285 or email [email protected] with any questions.

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