Columbia schools superintendent addresses need for a new elementary school

Thursday, November 12, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CST; updated 8:32 a.m. CST, Thursday, November 12, 2009

COLUMBIA — Superintendent Chris Belcher wants the Columbia Public School District to look into using part of a possible $120 million bond issue to build a second new elementary school.

Alpha Hart Lewis Elementary is scheduled to open in January. The bond issue is expected to go before voters in April, although that isn't final.

Elementary school enrollment is expected to grow by about 1,000 students over the next five years, while enrollment growth for middle, junior high and high school levels is expected to remain constant, according to enrollment projections Belcher presented to the board at its meeting Monday evening.

Plans to add a second elementary school had been a part of an original master plan. Columbia Public School Board member Karla DeSpain said it was never a conscious decision to remove plans for a second elementary school. But through changing administrations, from former Superintendent Phyllis Chase to interim head Jim Ritter and now to Belcher, the idea was lost in transition.

In 2006, the School Board came up with a three-phase master plan that would use three installments of $60 million each from bond issues scheduled to go before the public in April 2007, 2010 and 2013. 

Voters approved the first $60 million in April 2007 by 76 percent. The first $60 million in bonds was used for the new Lewis Elementary, maintenance and repairs for roofs throughout the school district, the installation of air conditioning in five schools, as well as some technology. A portion of the $60 million also was set aside for architecture plans for a new high school.

Over the 2008-09 school year, Ritter advised changing to a two-phase plan that would call for a $120 million bond issue to be voted on in April 2010. The decision was based on:

  • The change in the economy allowing for a lower interest rate that would save the district money.
  • The choice to build the high school in one construction period, instead of several construction periods.

School Board Vice President Tom Rose said the decision made more sense. If the high school were finished in segments, then "we weren't going to be able to fill the whole high school at one time," he said.

Upon completion of the high school, in fall 2013, the district will reconfigure all grade levels. The action will allow for fewer transitions from school to school for students. Ninth-graders will move into the high school buildings, and sixth-graders will move into buildings with seventh- and eighth-graders.

In promoting the original plan, the district and the board said reducing overcrowding was a main goal, and Belcher said they need to make good on that. He said elementary classroom space needs to remain a high priority, both to accommodate expected growth and to reduce the number of mobile classrooms. Columbia Public Schools had 152 trailers, which in 2006 accommodated 22 percent of all students. Today, there are 164.

Mobile classrooms are not as efficient, Belcher said. They lack bathrooms and are separate from the rest of the student population.

When Lewis Elementary opens in January, the number of mobile classrooms being used will drop by 16, Belcher said. By adding a second new elementary school, as previously planned, the district would be able to remove an additional 16 mobile classrooms.

Belcher asked the Long-Range Facilities Planning Committee, which is chaired by board member Ines Segert, to restart the discussion.

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