Mill Creek overcrowding solution uncertain after School Board meeting

Monday, October 14, 2013 | 10:42 p.m. CDT; updated 3:53 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, October 15, 2013

This story has been updated to better reflect the concerns of parents.

COLUMBIA — Mill Creek Elementary School’s enrollment reached 865 students this year. That’s 165 students over capacity.

The recent housing boom on the south side of town has caused an increase in enrollment at Mill Creek. Now, the Columbia School Board needs a plan to hold the school over until a new elementary school in the southwest can open in August 2016.

A crowd of mostly Mill Creek parents on Monday heard Assistant Superintendent for Elementary Education Peter Stiepleman offer possible short-term solutions to the school board.

The options were:

  • Draw new boundary lines: Stiepleman proposed moving boundary lines for Mill Creek before the southwest school opens to direct some students to Russell Boulevard Elementary and Paxton Keeley Elementary. This would lead to an estimated enrollment of 750 students at Mill Creek next year, he said.
  • Implement half-day kindergarten: Stiepleman opposed moving kindergarten classes to half-day classes because teachers have expressed concerns with having enough time to cover the full curriculum. Stiepleman also said the district worked hard to get full-day kindergarten classes and called the option a "step back."
  • Open a kindergarten academy: Stiepleman opposed moving kindergarten students to an offsite location for class. He said that last year parents wanted to keep their children together. A kindergarten academy would separate siblings, require extra busing and need additional space.

"We need to do something that is fair and equitable for everyone," Stiepleman said. "Not everyone is going to be happy, but parents have been saying to us, 'Make a decision.'"

Land for the new elementary school on the southwest side of Columbia has been hard to secure. The board made an offer on a property, but in July that property was taken off the market. This week, the board hopes to announce a decision on the southwest school's land progress.

"We continue to negotiate," Superintendent Chris Belcher said.

After some of the parents left, Stiepleman followed them and spoke to them in the hallway of the district building. Parents declined to be quoted directly but said they don't want to change their children's schools more than once because of boundary line changes.

They also said they wanted action, now.

Out in the hallway, a mother of four began crying as she voiced her frustration about a contradiction between two of Stiepleman's presentations. In one, on student performance, he emphasized that moving children from school to school hurts them academically. "Mobility matters," he said.

In the other presentation, on Mill Creek overcrowding, he raised the possibility of new school attendance areas, which might result in the mother's children being moved to a new school.

The board hopes to decide on a plan at its Dec. 9 meeting.

School bus contract

The district's contract with First Student, the school bus transportation company, expires June 30. First Student was originally contracted for three years, with the option to extend the contract for two one-year periods.

The board voted unanimously to extend the contract with First Student as presented. The extension will include a 2.5 percent increase of the base contract price. This is about $250,000 more than last year's contract.

Future bond issues

The district plans to ask the community to approve bond issues in 2014, 2016, 2018 and 2020. In 2014, the bond issue will be $50 million — about a 4-cent tax increase — while each bond after that will be $40 million. These bond issues comply with the district's 10-year facility bond plan to meet enrollment growth needs and fund building projects.

Some of the funds from the April 2014 bond issue will go toward a new elementary school on the east side of Columbia. The district hopes that the new school will relieve overcrowding at Cedar Ridge Elementary School, which is at almost twice its capacity.

At the meeting, the Long-range Facilities Planning Committee presented 20 suggested projects for the remainder of the April 2014 bond. The committee met for its first meeting on Oct. 7 to discuss these projects, which include building additions and maintenance projects. A narrowed list of  improvement recommendations will be presented to the board at its December meeting. The board hopes to vote on those recommendations in January.

Other votes taken:

  • Policy amendments for medical and dental coverage of domestic partners of district employees. Couples must be living together for at least one year in a marriage-like relationship to qualify for the benefits.
  • A $600 stipend for math club coaches in each of the eight Title I elementary schools in the district. The coaches will prepare fourth and fifth grade students for a district-wide math competition. Including benefits, the total cost of the stipends is $5,566.
  • The use of funds from the Title I budget and the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to purchase the ST Math program for Title I schools. The program includes instructional software that uses visual learning tools to boost math proficiency. It has an up-front cost of $214,000 and an additional cost of $3,000 per year.
  • A stormwater covenant between the district and the City of Columbia for the new northwest elementary school. In compliance with city ordinances, the district will have to construct, operate and maintain a stormwater management facility at the school.
  • An easement contract with Boone Electric Cooperative for the northeast elementary school. It will allow space for electricity structures and future repairs on those structures.

The meeting was held at the Neil C. Aslin District Administration Building, 1818 W. Worley St.

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.

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