Some Columbia officials urge improved communication with school district

Tuesday, July 31, 2007 | 2:31 p.m. CDT; updated 9:08 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

COLUMBIA — Columbia officials want to establish closer ties with Columbia Public Schools after feeling excluded from the decision to locate a high school three miles east of the city limits.

“I think it would be really good for there to be a closer connection between the school district, the city and Boone County, too,” said Jeff Barrow, chairman of the Columbia Planning and Zoning Commission. “It would be really helpful for us. We want a strong school system, and it would be better to know ahead of time how to accommodate it.”

Fourth Ward City Councilman Jerry Wade said he thinks a school district representative should have talked to the City Council about the district’s plans for the third full-scale high school before making a decision on where to build it.

“The fact that they did not is their decision, but I do think that we all gain when we communicate with each other and share information,” Wade said,

Superintendent Phyllis Chase said she talked with Columbia City Manager Bill Watkins before the school board approved the 80-acre tract at Rangeline and New Haven roads. Still, city and county officials said there was not enough communication between the school district and other governmental bodies, considering the selected site lacks the infrastructure for a school such as sewer lines and roads that can handle a large increase in traffic.

Third Ward City Councilman Karl Skala said the site essentially will require that taxpayers pay twice for the high school — once by approving a school bond issue and again by using public money to pay for some infrastructure needs.

“It’s not such a good idea to allow developers to get favorable pricing on the fringe of the city and to expect the community and taxpayers to pay to get infrastructure to that area,” Skala said. “The school board is doing the same thing. They expect everyone in the city to provide infrastructure there.”

Boone County Northern District Commissioner Skip Elkin said it would have helped to be involved from the start in conversations about a school site.

“It’s always nice to be included on the front end of those decisions that will have an impact on infrastructure,” Elkin said. “That way we can try to provide information so that they can make as much of an informed decision as possible.

“I would hope with any future sites — they don’t have to give us a specific location — that they could give us a general area, and we can tell them the infrastructure implications to try to help them make an informed decision.”

Wade would like to communicate more with the school board, especially in talking through shared issues.

Sixth Ward City Councilwoman Barbara Hoppe said the location of a new high school makes a large impact on the entire community, and the City Council should have been given the opportunity to provide input.

“The decisions the schools make regarding the location of high schools affects the city so much and citizens so much in terms of infrastructure and growth,” Hoppe said. “I think it’s really important for the school board and school district to work more closely in informing the council and giving the council more opportunity to give input in that discussion process.”

Formal communication between the council and the school board now only comes once a year when the two entities meet for a joint workshop. Topics generally include growth patterns and the specific goals of each body.

Brent Ghan, a spokesman for the Missouri School Boards Association, said that agency encourages school boards to have strong relationships with other government agencies in their areas.

Columbia school board President Karla DeSpain said it’s important for the school district to work closely with the city, but having too many people involved in discussions can become too much.

“I don’t think you can have everybody involved in the city processes involved in the school processes as well,” DeSpain said. “That’s just too many hands in the pot.”

DeSpain said she doesn’t think it was necessary for the school board to talk with the Planning and Zoning Commission.

Barrow, however, said communication with the planning commission, and the community as a whole, is important when planning a new school.

“It seems like the school district has insulated itself, and I would hope that there would be not just a change of their culture but a change in their written policies to make future school boards more communicative,” Barrow said. “It’s really easy to get focused on your own crystal ball without considering others.”

Missourian reporter Jewels Phraner contributed to this article.

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