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Growth brings space crunch for city schools

Classroom space hasn’t expanded at the same rate as the population.
Tuesday, March 22, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 5:46 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

As residential developments keep popping up throughout Columbia, so do school enrollments.

Concerns are arising from the community, schools and parents because there isn’t enough room. Columbia’s population has grown by about 7,000 in the last five years.

“This issue is always a concern on my mind,” said Chuck Headley, Columbia School Board president. “All you have to do is look around and see that there aren’t enough permanent places for school.”

Headley said there are two ways to address the concerns. One is to continue to add portable buildings, which he says is all that can be done in the short term. Constructing buildings or adding on to others are the other alternatives.

According to Jack Jensen, assistant superintendent of elementary education for Columbia Public Schools, a long-range planning group planned to build another elementary school on Columbia’s east side. The process is in place, but there is no timeline for when it will happen.

Jack Cowherd, a member of the long-range planning committee, said the committee was working on a plan, but it is within 18 months of expiring. The committee has decided to work toward a new plan to build a school on a site yet to be determined.

“We have to keep up with the elementary schools first, but as far as I am concerned, the high schools should have been done over 10 years ago,” Headley said.

Headley said he is reasonably sure the third public high school in Columbia will be up within the next 10 years.

Headley said the consensus of educational researchers is high school enrollment shouldn’t exceed 1,200 students per school. Hickman High School has 1,975 students, and Rock Bridge High School is at 1,610 and growing, according to the Web site of Columbia Public Schools.

Headley said such high numbers put limits on extracurricular activities and personal relationships with teachers.

Enrollment in Columbia Public Schools is up to 16,382 from 14,970 10 years ago. Cowherd said the numbers could go much higher, but it’s hard to predict.

In the meantime, portable classrooms will have to do the trick.

“In general, portable classrooms have worked fine,” Jensen said. “I taught my last year in a portable classroom, and they have their advantages.”

There are 152 trailers being used as mobile classrooms in the Columbia Public School District. Fifty-six are leased yearly for $6,000 each, which costs $336,000 annually.

Cowherd says the cost of building a classroom is about $100,000, and the cost of converting trailers to brick-and-mortar buildings is about $15.5 million.

Lisa Allen, a Columbia resident with two children in Oakland Junior High School, said she doesn’t see many advantages to mobile classrooms.

“The rent on the trailers is phenomenal,” Allen said. “For what they are spending on trailers, they could have built a new building.”

Allen said some of the trailers are old, have mice and are too hot or too cold. Another disadvantage is that students have to leave the main building to get to them.

Headley said there is a limit to the amount of debt the school district can incur because of property tax.

The four largest employers in Columbia — MU, University Hospital, Boone County Hospital and the school district — are tax-exempt.

“These employers generate jobs and bring people to the community, but none of them have to pay any property tax,” Headley said.

“These are all problems of a growing community. The community really needs to pay attention to what is going on because these issues will affect everyone.”


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