Voters say yes, yes, yes

USD 257 school bond issue passes

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Local News

April 3, 2019 - 10:21 AM

Iola Mayor Jon Wells congratulates SJCF project manager Darin Augustine after hearing results of the USD 257 bond election.

USD 257 voters agreed by a nearly two-to-one margin to build the first new school in the district in 43 years. Voters approved all three parts of Tuesday’s bond issue: a new elementary school for $25.5 million, a new science/technology building at the high school for $7 million and new heating, ventilation and cooling systems at the middle school for $2.8 million.

Leaders of the bond issue celebrated at a watch party at Rookies Bar & Grill Tuesday, where they read vote totals as they came in and cheered the results. They praised the community-led effort that brought together supporters and opponents of a failed 2014 effort. They also vowed to seek community input in the design of the new school.

“It’s this team and these leaders,” that led to the successful passage of the multi-pronged bond issues, said Dan Willis, school board president, immediately after the results were announced. “We studied what didn’t work in 2014 and strategized to put together a plan that voters could support. It’s been an open process for more than a year. We found common ground. None of us went without compromise.””

A summary of the vote:

• New elementary school: 1,212 (64.43%) yes, 669 (35.57%) no

• New science/tech building at IHS: 1,200 (64.17%) yes, 670 (35.83%) no

• New HVAC at IMS: 1,272 (67.99%) yes, 599 (32.01%) no

Nearly 34 percent of USD 257 voters (1,882 out of 5,571) turned out for the special election. 

The district hasn’t built a new school since 1976, when it constructed the now-closed LaHarpe Elementary School. In Iola, the last new construction was McKinley Elementary School in 1949. The last successful bond issue was in 1992, when voters approved a renovation at Iola Middle School.

Ryan Sparks and Savannah Flory, co-chairs of the bond committee, said Willis deserved credit for his leadership and ability to bring together various factions after the 2014 bond. They, too, talked about efforts of the community-led committee.

“We couldn’t have asked for a better group of leaders. What led this whole group was a passion for this community and for the kids,” Sparks said.

Superintendent Stacey Fager said: “It’s going to mean a lot for the community. It was the community’s vision. It was the community’s plan. That’s what we’re celebrating.””

NOW, the hard work begins. 

The district has 30 days to secure the finance bonds for the project. 

They also need to survey and purchase property at the proposed site at Kentucky and Monroe streets, and begin soil remediation as needed. 

The district hasn’t yet purchased the land, but has made tentative agreements with four property owners for the 15-acre site. Now, negotiations likely will ramp up.

The area once was the site of an iron works foundry and a zinc smelting operation. At least portions of the property likely are contaminated with lead, and the soil will need to be remediated before construction starts on a new elementary school. 

The Environmental Protection Agency has designated that property and others around Iola as a Superfund site, slated for soil remediation. The EPA had targeted the site for cleanup in 2021, but it’s possible that process could be expedited. It’s also possible the government could pay some or all of the costs, or that grants could be secured to pay for it. If not, the bond issue includes up to $500,000 for soil cleanup.

School district officials said they are committed to the site, but if for some reason their plans fall through, they would go back to the community to find an alternate location.

ARCHITECTS now can design the new facilities, a process that could take several months. Darin Augustine, with SJCF Architects, a Wichita firm that helped the district through the bond process, said they plan to seek community input as they work through the design. Fager said input from teachers would be important during the design process. 

The new elementary school will provide classrooms for preschool through fifth grade students. It’s likely to be one story to make it easier for students with special needs and disabilities. It also will include a competition-sized gymnasium that could allow the district to host events like regional or state basketball competitions, and could provide an alternative location for city recreation needs. 

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