Public unhappy with school board decision

Thursday, June 21, 2007 | 2:00 p.m. CDT; updated 5:30 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Even the current lack of infrastructure and necessary road improvements were not enough to keep the school board from approving a site for a third comprehensive high school in southeast Columbia.

Several members of the public are not happy with the site selected and attended Thursday’s school board workshop to voice conerns. Some say the district settled on this site instead of sticking with initial thoughts of putting the school north of Columbia. Half of the site’s 80 acres was donated by farmer Turner Vemer and the other half was purchased by the district for $500,000 earlier this year.

“If the Vemer land had not become available, I think you would have chosen land more thoughtfully,” said South Rangeline Road resident John McCormick, speaking to the board. “See if it’s not possible to place a school in the part of the city you thought was best.”

Discussion of the site at the southeast corner of New Haven and Rangeline roads garnered six different public comments at this morning’s school board workshop. Board member Michelle Gadbois referred to the morning’s discussion as a “healthy dialogue” of citizens bringing their concerns to the board. However, some attendees disagreed.

“Have there been any public forums?” Barbara McCormick asked the board. “Somehow we’ve missed public discussion on this. It’s way too important of an issue to not involve the public.”

Lynn Barnett, assistant superintendent for student support services and secretary to the board, confirmed that no public forums had been held to discuss the approved site prior to Thursday’s meeting.

Location and lack of infrastructure were other major concerns raised by the public.

“The Vemer property is not a good location,” said James Fairchild, who lives two miles from the selected site.

Fairchild listed several reasons the site was not suited for a high school, such as the property was not served by current infrastructure and was not adequately accessible to emergency personnel.

“Please consider the northeast location in addition to the Vemer tract,” Fairchild said. “Do not rush to approve (this site) without looking at other options.”

The Vemer property lies three miles east of the nearest Columbia city limits, said Stan Shawver, the county’s director of planning and bulding.

Carol Reidinger, who lives on Highway WW, said that road would be used to access the new school and is “extremely dangerous.”

“As a parent, I am concerned that road improvements need to be in place before kids get on the highway,” Reidinger said.

Board president Karla DeSpain said she was “very familiar with WW,” having gone to school in Fulton.

“I’ve lost many friends on that road, (but) further out than Columbia,” DeSpain said.

Residents who live near the selected site said that improvements to nearby roads were not part of a 25-year road improvement plan. Roger Schwartze, district engineer for the Missouri Department of Transportation, said that improvement plan was likely a part of the Columbia Area Transportation Study Organization, or CATSO, plan. Schwartze said the one scheduled construction that might affect traffic to the new high school is the planned interchange at Gans Road and Highway 63. The only planned improvements for WW are those being made now for a new golf course and subdivision.

McCormick said the county just paved both Rangeline and New Haven roads. Director of Boone County’s Public Works Department, David Mink, said the two roads are “probably inadequate for considerable traffic increases” and any improvements made would be “very expensive.” Improvements to Rangeline Road may be a part of the CATSO plan, but Mink said that only puts the road “in the planning process but does not indicate funding or priority.”

Gadbois said she understood public concern about roads and asked superintendent Phyllis Chase what the district could do to ensure necessary improvements be made.

“The school district, the city and the county will work together,” Chase said, adding that when Rock Bridge High School was built in the late 1970s, the district had to address a similar situation. “I believe ... there were no access roads to that school, and the city and county worked with the school district at that time.”

“I would have to trust that the county and city would step up,” Gadbois said.

Another concern raised about the property was the quality of the drinking water.

“Water that comes out of the well is way too radioactive to drink,” McCormick said, who added that he has received a letter about the radioactive water from the water district for the past two years.

“The solution to date is to dilute the water so that it drops below the upper limit than standards say is safe,” but that solution is in place for a population that is fairly small.

District manager for water district number nine that serves that area, Roger Ballew, said that information is not completely accurate and that the water is drinkable, it just has elevated levels of radium. Ballew said the well has been used a lot less since 2003.

“It’s concern enough that we have to do something about it, but we’re working on a plan to treat it,” Ballew said. “We’re actually going to treat the water and remove the radium completely.”

Chase said she was unaware of that issue, but there are “a couple of options on where to get our water.”

Several people asked the board to consider the problems with the site before it voted.

“Delay your decision on this site until all of you can be more informed and reflect more thoroughly on the pros and cons,” McCormick urged board members.

“This is a big issue the school board is trying to do without public input,” Reidinger said after the meeting.

Despite public comment on the issue and questions raised by board members during discussion, the board approved the site unanimously. Only Dr. Tom Rose, the board’s newest member, was absent from the meeting.

Board members said they know there may be challenges ahead, but those same challenges would most likely be experienced with any plot of land near Columbia large enough to build a high school.

“Any place that we place this school will need improvements,” DeSpain said.

“The community should consider...that progress will be incremental,” Gadbois said. “You don’t just jump in and build a building.”

The building process is not expected to be exceptionally smooth.

“Issues have been addressed, but that’s not to say we won’t have significant challenges ahead of us,” Chase said. “I’m sure there will be road bumps as we move forward.”

Tomorrow morning, the construction and enrollment committees will kick-off their discussions about rezoning school boundaries. Chase said a timeline was in place for the committees’ progress and what needs to happen for the school to open as planned in 2010.

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