Bonds, property and achievement gap discussed at School Board meeting

Thursday, October 22, 2009 | 2:03 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — The Columbia School Board discussed academic achievement gaps, a possible 2010 bond issue vote for the second phase for a new high school and the status of the Van Horn, Bethel Street and Field Elementary School properties on Thursday morning.

Academic achievement gap
Forums on building uses

What: Forums (PDF) on possible uses of the Field Elementary School building and a former day-care center at 4600 Bethel St. being purchased by Columbia Public Schools.

When: 5 and 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 28

Where: 5 at Field Elementary School media center, 1010 Range Line St.; 6:30 at Gentry Middle School cafetorium, 4200 Bethel St.

Phil Peters, executive director of the nonprofit education group First Chance for Children, explained that Columbia's achievement gaps, especially between black and white students, are wider, but closing faster, than the national and state averages.

Peters said Columbia is in an uncommon situation in that white students perform above the state average on standardized tests, but black students perform below. However, since 1990, the achievement gap has been closing steadily, with the most progress gained before students enter high school, he said.

Peters also said an achievement gap exists between children of poor and affluent families before entering kindergarten, meaning, in his view, the school district and community needs to provide more early childhood education.

New high school bond

 The board spent most of the meeting discussing strategies to educate the public on the $120 million bond, which would include implementing phase two of building the high school. The bond issue would appear on the ballot in April 2010.

Superintendent Chris Belcher put the issue on the agenda because he is "feeling urgency to move ahead" after talking with "about 20 groups."

"We're ready to move, but we need to start thinking about strategies to communicate to the public," Belcher said.

Lack of communication was partially blamed for the 2008 defeat of a property tax levy increase. Board President Jan Mees said at the meeting that the board is "gun-shy" from that defeat.

Board member James Whitt said that parents and teachers will support the bond but that community members without children in school are concerned about the cost of the high school (estimated at more than $80 million) when some elementary schools still don't have air conditioning. Several members agreed that the district should take the community's temperature about the bond.

"You can't short-sell it because that high school is going to serve a lot of kids for a long time," Belcher said, addressing concerns he's heard from the community that the new school will cause inequalities between buildings.

He said the schools will be on par in technology and space, including trailers, and will achieve further parity when all the schools get air conditioning.

"I think we need to attack it head-on with all the right reasons we want to do this," Mees said. "We have research, we have data, we have overcrowding."

Van Horn, Field and Bethel Street properties

After agreeing to look into firms to conduct the research of the community's position, Belcher updated the board on the Van Horn, Field and Bethel Street properties.

The school district received at least one offer to buy the Van Horn Tavern Road property. The district decided to sell the property, used for storage, because more storage space is needed. Belcher said another offer was made by message, but the potential buyer hasn't been reached to discuss details.

Belcher said he is contacting the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to get the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, or stimulus, funds used to purchase the 4600 Bethel St. property, a former day-care center. The district is buying the property for $1.4 million. He is not expecting any problems because the purchase "is clearly within the use of the funds."

The school district has not decided how to use the property yet.

The meeting ended by requesting an update from Jack Jensen, assistant superintendent for elementary education, on the preparations to move from Field Elementary School to the new Alpha Hart Lewis building at the November meeting.

Two community forums are scheduled for Wednesday to talk about possible uses for the Field and Bethel properties.


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