It was the simple availability of land, not its location, that drove Columbia Public Schools officials to choose a farm southeast of Columbia as the site for a third major high school, Superintendent Phyllis Chase said.
“Our primary concern was simply to find anyone who had 80 to 100 acres of land that would be usable for a high school,” Chase said during an interview about the process used to determine the site. “The exact location of that land was really not an issue.”
The school board vote to approve the site on June 21, however, has some Columbia residents, particularly on the north side, protesting. The site, a farm formerly owned by Turner Vemer at Range Line and New Haven roads, is five miles east of U.S. 63, and three miles from the nearest city boundary.
Angela Smith, who lives in the Vanderveen neighborhood of north Columbia and has a third-grader and a seventh-grader, said the site is too far away.
“This area is growing, and it’s better to have something more north,” Smith said. “You have Rock Bridge south, Hickman in the center, and it just makes sense to have something in the north.”
Tami Avery, president of the Oakview Drive Neighborhood Association, shared Smith’s concern.
“It’s crazy to have one so close to Rock Bridge High School when so many people in the north want one out here,” Avery said.
Finding land available in the north, or anywhere for that matter, wasn’t easy, Chase said. After former Assistant Superintendent Chris Mallory called 10 to 12 landowners, the Vemer property was the only one that became available.
“We didn’t find anyone else willing to make us an offer of selling or of a gift,” Chase said.
Chase would not discuss the names of property owners that district administrators contacted.
“I don’t think it would be appropriate to divulge names,” she said.
Columbia School Board President Karla DeSpain defended the decision on the site, saying growth in Columbia is likely headed southeast.
“We need to look at available growth in our community,” DeSpain said. “We had an opportunity to get ahead of the curve and ahead of development.”
Discussions of the high school site began long ago.
- In September, board members took a bus tour of Columbia, led by city Planning Director Tim Teddy, to see city development and growth. Board Vice President Darin Preis said the tour helped him decide to support a site in the east.
- During a closed meeting in December, board members voted to accept a donation of 40 acres from Vemer and to buy another 40 acres from him for $500,000.
- On April 3, voters approved a $60 million school bond issue that included money for a new high school.
- After a June 11 open meeting, the board held a closed meeting to discuss real estate. Between that meeting and the board’s next open meeting, new member Jan Mees discussed her concerns about the Vemer site during a three-way phone conversation with Chase and City Manager Bill Watkins.
- On June 21, the board unanimously approved the new site, although newly appointed member Tom Rose was absent.
“We saw what was going on, on that side of town,” Preis said. “There’s massive growth and more anticipated, and when we looked at Cedar Ridge (Elementary) and all its trailers, it indicated we should be building out that way.”
“We discussed lots of things, including several options for the best location for the new high school,” Watkins said. “I told them there’s the most growth potential out east.”
Before approving the site, the board looked at maps and aerial photos of the farm. Preis said the maps were the only documents the board looked at. However, members were told about an environmental study done on the land but did not actually see the document, board member Steve Calloway said.
During its discussion of the high school site, the board examined no demographic or other data to discern growth trends in Columbia and Boone County. Calloway, however, said the district’s Long-Range Facilities Planning Committee, of which he was a member, examined growth and home-building patterns as part of its work some time ago.
Preis said the board is committed to ensuring the demographic makeup of the new school is consistent with that of Hickman and Rock Bridge high schools. Because growth in the southeast has not yet occurred, however, it would be up to the Enrollment Planning Committee to make those decisions, Preis said.
In interviews this week, board members said two reasons for approving the Vemer land were the price and its flat topography. It also was the only option presented to the school board. Calloway said the public desire to limit the number of times children change schools also created a sense of urgency.
“In terms of trying to get this rolling, our timeline, in order to be on track, probably required some expediency,” Calloway said.
John McCormick, whose 15-acre tract borders the high school site, said he felt the public was left out of the board’s decision. McCormick said he e-mailed every board member after its June 21 meeting but received only one response, from DeSpain.
“The public deserved to be involved and in the know,” McCormick said. “The lack of openness with this entire situation gives birth to suspicions.”
McCormick noted, for example, that Vemer is the father of Leslie Trogdon, who is director of school improvement for the district. Chase said she didn’t know that until after the first Vemer tract was donated. She learned of their relationship when, during the course of the property transaction, Vemer provided a list of his children’s names.
Chase is open about her belief that the district should not solicit public input on potential real estate purchases, but she said that she thinks there has been plenty of public input on the high school in general. She noted that the school district, beginning in 2005, conducted a long-range facilities planning survey that asked Columbia residents if they would be willing to approve bonds to build a new high school and that 76 percent of voters approved the April bond issue.
“We got an overwhelming ‘yes’ to build a new high school,” Chase said. “But in terms of purchasing land, we certainly would never try to purchase land by community input; it is impossible to do. The moment you indicate where the land is going to be, the price doubles, triples, quadruples.
“That is why the state, in its wisdom, has given school boards the option of discussing this in executive session,” she continued, “so they can protect their constituents from price gouging.”
Chase conceded she is concerned about the distance of the Vemer site from central Columbia. It’s an eight-mile drive from Broadway and Providence Road. Still, she said, picking a site for any school is an educated guess.
“It takes vision,” Chase said, “It takes people that are willing to take the dangers of leadership, step out there and make an educated guess. You’re trying to predict what the future will look like.”