Columbia schools to use stimulus funds to buy building

Thursday, August 6, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — At a meeting of the Columbia Public School District's long-range facilities planning committee on Wednesday, district officials further discussed the future uses of Field Elementary School, which will be vacant in Jan. 2010, and recommended to the Columbia School Board that stimulus funds be used to purchase a new facility.

The 15,000 square foot building, located at 4600 Bethel Street in Southeast Columbia, would cost about $1.6 million and could be used to house students currently attending Bearfield School — the district’s special education facility — or as an early childhood education center, officials said.  

“That opens up the options tremendously,” said Ines Segert, a member of the long-range facilities planning committee and the board of education. “We no longer have to decide between special education and early childhood education. We believe we can do both.”

Funding for the facility would come from the $4 million in stimulus money the district received for special education needs, half of which may be used to offset the use of local funds for any reason. Linda Quinley, business director for Columbia Public Schools, recommended the building be purchased with these funds because it would give the district more leeway in deciding what the building will be used for.   

Nick Boren, chief operations officer for the district, said time was of the essence in deciding whether to purchase the building.

“This is our only opportunity to replace local dollars with stimulus money,” Boren said.

The funds must be spent before the end of the 2009-10 school year.

One of the district’s goals is to decrease its number of leased buildings, Segert said.

“That is a reoccurring cost, and we don’t have control over those facilities,” she said.

The purchase of a new facility would allow the district to move its offices around and get out of two leases, saving about $250,000 in operating money every year.  

Officials agreed that the use of the new building would be decided at a later time, but discussed several possibilities. The main question was whether Field Elementary would be used as the district’s new special education facility or as an early childhood education center.

Charles Ostreich, building services director, advised committee members that renovating Field Elementary to accommodate early childhood education would be more costly than renovating the Bethel property for the same use.  

“Field can be ready for Bearfield with little or no effort,” Ostreich said.

He said renovating the Bethel property to accommodate the program currently at Bearfield would cost $300,000 to $400,000.  

The Bethel property used to be a day care center, officials said, but it has been vacant for 18 months. The property includes tennis courts, a basketball court, a playground and 42 parking spots. There is also a small pool, which Boren said would likely be covered and roped off.  

Members of the North Central Columbia Neighborhood Association were also present at the meeting to voice concerns of the community surrounding Field Elementary.  

Dan Cullimore, a neighborhood association board member, addressed the board, expressing a general distrust by community members in the way the school district made decisions, although Segert said in an earlier interview that she believes the community should have a big voice in deciding what happens to Field Elementary.   

Cullimore also said that some people in the community were worried about the possibility of a large fence being erected around the school.  

“Nobody wants to see that building look more like a detention facility and less like a neighborhood school,” he said.

For now, there is no clear-cut choice for how Field or the Bethel Property will be used for early childhood education, said Jack Jensen, assistant superintendent for elementary education.  

“There are more students in the North, but less facilities to the South,” he said.  “There are needs in both areas.”  

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