Bursting at the seams

Columbia’s public schools are overcrowded and outdated. On April 3, voters will decide on a $60 million bond issue.
Saturday, March 17, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 7:20 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008
Students at Grant Elementary play during recess. The 96-year-old school has several buildings in need of repair. If the bond issue is approved on April 3, $7 million of the $60 million bond would be used for building improvements and repairs.

Maxine Nelson has taught in the Columbia Public School District for 29 years, 19 of those at West Junior High School. Two of those years at West have been spent in a trailer just outside of the school’s main building.

“The kids say I’ve been put out to pasture, being out here in the trailer,” Nelson joked.


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The trips Nelson’s students make between the trailer and the school’s main building echo the findings of a district educational adequacy study released in October. The study concludes that the district’s 154 trailers — which house 22 percent of all students — disrupt teaching and crowd shared spaces such as cafeterias and restrooms, as well as create possible “problems in student traffic flow between and within the permanent buildings.”

a $180 million solution

In an effort to alleviate the crowding that created the need for the trailers, the school district will ask voters to approve a $60 million bond issue on April 3.

It is the first of three such proposed bond issues — for a total of $180 million.

Superintendent Phyllis Chase said the district can issue the $60 million in bonds without raising taxes because Columbia’s bond rating is less than 15 percent of the district’s total assessed valuation (the bonding capacity set by state law). The district’s current assessed valuation of property taxes is $1.7 billion, said Chase.

Instead, Chase said, the district would use money from the property taxes to pay off the bond in increments of about $5,000—for an estimated five years.

“A bond is about bricks and mortar,” Chase said, noting that Missouri law prohibits school districts from using bond proceeds to pay teachers or daily operating expenses. For example, when the district dips into its reserve money, it is doing so for operating expenses such as teacher salaries and benefits or educational supplies and materials; it can’t use that money to build a school.

The district’s long-range facilities planning committee took the results of the educational adequacy study, an engineering study and a community engagement process — all completed in 2006 — and recommended that the district ask voters to approve bond issues.

After the April 3 vote, the district will ask voters to approve referendums in 2011 and 2013 to address the rest of the committee’s recommendations. The specifics for the next two bond issues have not been determined.

“We thought (asking for) $90 million twice was a lot of money for the community to get their heads … and hearts around,” Chase said. “It’s an accountability issue. We will allow our public to assess us, then go back and ask for the next vote.”

The referendum must pass by a 57 percent majority, or four-sevenths, according to state law.

“To my knowledge, we have never had a bond issue fail,” said Lynn Barnett, assistant superintendent for student support services. “We are fortunate to have a very supportive community.”

Columbia City Manager Bill Watkins said the city met with Chase to discuss the proposed bond issue.

“We have always been able to work with the school board,” Watkins said. “I think it’s important we continue to keep our infrastructure up to date, and that includes schools.”

assessing needs

If the initial bond issue is approved, $40 million of the proceeds would build an elementary school and begin the first construction phase of a third major high school.

The rest of the money would go toward a variety of building improvements such as roof repairs and new windows, air conditioning for five elementary schools and more technology in classrooms.

Barnett called the April 3 bond issue “the biggest ever,” and attributed the request for $60 million in bonds to the district’s growth over the last decade.

“The needs are just huge,” she said.

In August 2006, Columbia Public Schools hired the DLR Group of Kansas City and Custom Energy, a consulting firm in Overland Park, Kan., to complete a detailed report on the condition of district facilities.

“They did a detailed evaluation of our buildings, from roof to foundation and from fence to fence, looking at everything except the mobile classroom trailers,” said Chester Edwards, building services director for the district.

The assessment found several areas that need to be renovated because of safety concerns, cosmetic issues or to reach compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

One-third of Columbia’s schools were found to be substantially overcrowded.

making the switch

Currently, Columbia’s 17,237 public school students make three transitions between kindergarten and high school: they go from elementary, which is kindergarten through fifth grade; to middle for sixth and seventh grades; on to junior high for eighth and ninth grades; and end at high school for grades 10 through 12.

If the bond issue passes, district officials expect the construction of a third major high school to reduce the number of transitions, allowing sixth- through eighth-graders to attend school together and ninth-graders to attend high school.

School Board member and former board president Chuck Headley said Columbia is one of the only districts in the state that doesn’t put ninth-graders in high school. “It’s very likely that the board will decide to make the high schools nine through 12,” Headley said.

Superintendent Chase said the current number of transitions makes middle school and junior high students feel like they’re constantly newcomers or on their way out.

“For four years, kids are either coming or going in Columbia Public Schools,” Chase said. “You have middle school, when they’re just getting there, then leaving, then it is repeated for two more years in junior high.”

Reducing the number of those transitions was also a priority of community members surveyed last summer as part of the district’s Community Engagement Task Force. About 50 percent of the 1,027 people surveyed thought it was important to limit the number of K-12 transitions, and another 39 percent called it “somewhat important.”

new construction: $40.8 million

About $22 million of the $40 million allocated from bond issue proceeds for school construction would go toward the first phase of a new high school, including a cafeteria, commons area, media center and classrooms for about 600 students.

The second and third construction phases will include additional classroom space to make the high school ready for 1,600 to 1,800 students, which will be the school’s final capacity, Barnett said.

Chase said the trailers that surround many of the district schools show the urgency for more class space.

“The schools in our district (have) some ‘learning cottages,’ as I like to call them. Take 154 trailers, put about 20 students in each one, and you can see that we really need seven additional buildings to house those students,” she said. “So we do have an overcrowding issue.”

Nelson, the teacher from West Junior High, said the trips her students must make to the school’s main building for lunch, restroom breaks and other classes can sometimes be treacherous.

“When students go back and forth between classes, it can get cold sometimes,” she said. “They might have to walk in the snow, ice or rain.”

As an eighth-grader at West Junior High, Khalidah Stanton knows all about overcrowding at school. Although only her social studies class meets in a trailer, Khalidah feels the effects of being separated from her school’s main building.

“It’s kind of hard to get there when it’s raining and the weather is bad,” Khalidah said, noting that sometimes bathroom breaks are discouraged because of how much class time a student could miss traveling to and from the main building.

The educational adequacy study lists West Junior High as being in poor site condition. The school is home to five trailers and about 950 students.

Headley, who steps down next month after nine years on the school board, said the need for additional space has been an issue since he was elected.

“The district has not been able to keep up with the growth,” Headley said. “The trailers have been a constant (fixture) even with additions to Derby Ridge, Mill Creek and all the middle schools and junior highs. There is still a need out there.”

Chase said the time for building a third major high school is now.

“Research says a comprehensive high school should be no larger than 1,200 to 1,500 students,” Chase said. “With Rock Bridge at 1,800 and Hickman at 2,000, we could fill (a new one) up today.”

The district decided to build a third major high school in three parts in order to provide greater accountability and make sure projects come in on time and on budget.

“We could not open that school and transfer juniors and seniors over there,” Chase said, noting older students’ desire to graduate as a Bruin or Kewpie. “We’ll have to open it with the ninth- and 10th-graders we have now, which means we’ll go ahead and build common spaces.”

District officials have not decided where the new schools would be built. Chase said a person could “take a dart and throw it, and wherever it lands, east side, north side, wherever you put (the new elementary school) it will reduce overcrowding.”

The district has been given 40 acres near New Haven Avenue and Range Line Street and recently bought another adjacent 40 acres for $500,000. Chase said the district is waiting on survey and soil test results before any decision on land use is made.

In December, the board hired DLR as the architect group for all future projects.

“They’ve identified what that high school needs to do, but none of that design work or core information has been decided yet,” said Edwards of building services. “It would have been premature to decide that without the voters’ support.”

This month, Columbia Independent School announced plans to build a campus on a 36-acre parcel of land just south of Rock Bridge Elementary School.

And in February, Columbia’s Catholic community announced plans to build a high school, which will hold 500 students, to be located in southeast Columbia north of Gans Road. Groundbreaking is projected for spring 2008.

Barnett of student support services said the district needs a third major high school even with a new Catholic high school in town.

“People may be asking, ‘Do we need another high school? But we do not see it as a competition,” she said. The district works closely with the Catholic community, Barnett said, and “the choice is good for this community.”

If approved, another $18.8 million of the bond issue’s proceeds would fund the construction of an elementary school. Barnett said it would likely resemble Paxton Keeley Elementary School in size, which was built in 2001 and holds about 700 students. The school district has made no sketches or architectural plans about what the schools will look like or where they will be located, Barnett said. “We’re waiting until the public gives us permission,” she said.

building improvements: $7 million

The bond issue includes $7 million for building improvements to the district’s facilities, which include 40 campuses and 214 buildings, including trailers. If the bond passes, a variety of improvements will be done, including renovations to casework, ceilings, doors, electrical, plumbing, roofing and replacing old windows and the mortar between bricks.

“The intensity of use of most of our buildings is extremely high,” Edwards said.

Installing double-paned windows that are more energy-efficient is also on the list of needed repairs to district facilities. Currently, only about one-third of district buildings have double-paned windows, Chase said.

For example, the windows at two of the district’s oldest schools, Lee and Grant, are still single-paned. They were scheduled to be replaced as part of the 2004 bond issue, but because of a nationwide window shortage as a result of Hurricane Katrina, those repairs have been delayed. Grant’s windows have only been replaced once before, according to Principal Beverly Borduin, and will be replaced this summer.

If the bond issue passes, more of the district’s single-paned windows will be replaced.

Then there’s the school district’s 1.8 million square feet of roofing, which Edwards said is “an ongoing maintenance replacement issue.”

“The ice and snow this year, particularly the ice, has wreaked havoc on our roofs,” Edwards said. “We had 286 reported roof leaks between December, January and February of this year, which is substantially higher than normal.”

Some proceeds from the bond issue will be used for roof repairs, Edwards said, though other repairs will be paid for by insurance claims.

“There are a number of roof replacements on multiple buildings that need to be done, he said. “(The roofs) are at the end of their life cycle.

air conditioning: $7.2 million

Also included in the April 3 bond is $7.2 million to install air conditioning in five of Columbia’s elementary schools. Of the 19 elementary schools in the district, only four are air-conditioned.

District officials decided Benton, Blue Ridge, Fairview, Parkade and Russell Boulevard elementaries would be the five schools to receive air conditioning, taking into account the size of the school, potential number of students served and use during the summer.

About 6,000 students attend summer school in the district, Chase said, “which makes our summer school one of the state’s largest districts.”

Air conditioning one school costs about $1.5 million, Chase estimated. “Many have steam heat and you can’t run cool air through steam pipes; you need to go in and do some duct work,” she said.

District officials said the installations could take a few years to complete, since many of the buildings will have to be rewired.

At Benton Elementary, principal Debby Barksdale said the reason the school does not offer summer school is that it’s not air conditioned, and she is “absolutely thrilled” at the prospect of getting it.

“Getting air conditioning is one of the things we’re most excited about,” Barksdale said. “It is something that we have aspired to, and I hope next summer we’ll be able to have summer school.”

technology update: $5 million

In a recent math lesson at Grant Elementary, teacher Lurie Krumm used the SMART Board to explain three-dimensional shapes. Students’ hands shot up as they clamored for the chance to touch the screen and drag shapes into appropriately labeled categories.

Krumm said using a SMART Board and data projector makes teaching — and learning — more interactive. “(The students) really like being able to walk up to the screen and touch it, to interact,” she said.

Data projectors, mounted on classroom ceilings, allow teachers to project lesson plans onto a white screen at the front of the class. SMART Boards have electronic touch-sensitive displays and encourage student interaction.

If approved, $5 million of the April 3 bond proceeds will help fund the second year of the district’s technology plan. The goal is to provide essential hardware to every classroom in the district by investing in SMART Boards, data projectors, teacher laptops and laptop labs for student use.

Grant’s Borduin said if the bond issue passes, she hopes more of her school’s classrooms will get data projectors and SMART Boards.

“Six of our classrooms have data projectors and SMART Boards, but 12 more are needed,” she said. “If a teacher gets a data projector, that’s a great thing, but if a teacher gets a data projector and a SMART Board, that’s even better.”

Teachers and students love the new technology, Borduin said, but it doesn’t come cheap. “Even without the wiring and installation costs, just the equipment of a data projector and SMART Board costs $2,500 per class,” she said.

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