Other districts share thoughts on new high school decisions, city involvement

Thursday, August 2, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 2:19 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

COLUMBIA-There comes a time when officials of nearly every school district must make decisions regarding locations for new schools, but representatives of several Missouri districts say they do it differently than Columbia Public Schools officials did when deciding to build a third main high school on farmland southeast of the city.

In Columbia’s case, Superintendent Phyllis Chase conferred with Columbia City Manager Bill Watkins before the school board ratified her recommendation that the school be built on 80 acres of land formerly owned by Turner Vemer. That decision followed a single public meeting on June 21, during which five people voiced their opposition to the site.

But the school board unanimously approved the Vemer site, even though it is three miles outside of Columbia and void of sewer lines or improved roads, at that June 21 meeting. Chase later said the land was selected not because of its location but simply because it was the only sufficient site available. Vemer last year donated half the land. This year, the district bought the second half for $500,000.

Several city officials have told the Missourian they wished they had more input in the decision.

Representatives of school districts similar in size and enrollment to Columbia’s said they make a point of getting municipal input on school locations.

Fort Zumwalt School District, with boundaries that encompass the areas of O’Fallon and St. Peters, emphasizes city involvement.

“There’s no reason not to take (the city) into your discussions,” Fort Zumwalt Superintendent Bernard DuBray said.

The district talked to St. Peters’ planning director to get his opinion on the best site for a new high school, based on the infrastructure already in place and potential effects on traffic flow, DuBray said.

“There’s some question whether a school district needs to (go through planning and zoning) since we’re our own public entity,” DuBray said. “But I think going through the planning and zoning process makes it more of a neighbor-friendly process and shows the city some respect.”

Officials in the North Kansas City School District stay constantly updated on where growth is happening within district boundaries, said Bob Maggio, executive director of operations and facilities for the district.

“We need to know what’s going on with the city,” Maggio said. “Our associate superintendent also really believes in getting in his car twice a year and driving around to see where the growth is himself.”

Maggio said growth trends, along with the availability and price of land, all played a major role in the recent decision on where to build a new high school.

Cherie Alderson, director of financial services for Springfield Public Schools, said that district hired an external consultant to come up with housing projections the last time it decided to build a new school.

“We need to know where we are going to need a school the most,” Alderson said.

Chase said in an earlier interview that Columbia’s growth trends weren’t a factor in the decision to place the high school on the Vemer land.

“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. “The exact location of that land was really not an issue.”

North Kansas City is in the final stages of construction on its fourth high school and district activities center. When it first bought the land, however, residents worried about the lack of infrastructure to the site. North Kansas City had only a small sewer connection in a far corner of the property and no water, similar to the lack of amenities on Columbia’s site.

“There are some concerns right now that we have spent a great deal of money bringing in all the infrastructure,” Maggio said. “It is an interesting challenge to work with a municipality because you have to rely on that municipality to help you out with the city streets and traffic signals.”

In addition to the infrastructure concerns, some residents said they felt left out of the process.

Paul Tandy, spokesman for Parkway School District in the St. Louis area, said that school system held a general public meeting to announce that it was looking for land in a specific area on which to build a new school. It then organized a task force composed of community members and staff that spent six to nine months writing a report addressing where the community needed a new school and how it would affect the attendance boundaries of the other schools.

The report was presented to Parkways’s Board of Education during a public meeting.

“The board looks for feedback and input from the community,” Tandy said.

Missourian reporter Kendra Lueckert contributed to this article.

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