COLUMBIA - The conference room on the fourth floor of the Daniel Boone Government Building was packed with people at a pre-council meeting Monday night. Latecomers had to wind their way through a maze of chairs and sit on the floor of the room.
And although there was no option for public participation, many people were there to hear Columbia Public Schools’ presentation to Columbia City Council about the construction of the district’s two newest schools.
“We were really there tonight to thank (the council members) in advance for their support,” said Superintendent Phyllis Chase after the meeting.
But none of the council members had anything supportive to say before the presentation was cut short, by the start of the city council meeting.
Some concerns council members voiced were funding for the infrastructure needs of the high school, as well as the lack of public and city participation in the decision-making process.
The high school site is located three miles outside Columbia city limits, at the southeast corner of New Haven and Rangeline roads. The former farmland lacks sewer lines, and roads leading to the proposed high school have no curbs or shoulders.
Councilwoman Lauren Nauser asked whether the school district was looking to the city or the council for money to put the site’s infrastructure needs in place.
“We’re looking towards partnering with the city and county, but we do understand this would be a major endeavor,” Chase said.
Councilman Jerry Wade said he was “totally befuddled” about how the school district could have spent two years planning for a third main high school without coming to the city council about any of the infrastructure needs.
“We’re getting the information after it looks like the decision has been made,” he said.
Chase said she had no authority to go to the council until the public approved the bond that will go towards paying for the first phase of the construction of the high school. The bond was approved on April 3, four months before Monday’s meeting.
Wade also expressed concerns over what capital improvement projects would suffer because of the infrastructure needs of the site the school district selected.
“(We’re) just being caught in some very difficult decisions with major political ramifications for the entire city,” he said of the possibility of denying some critical, already approved capital improvement projects in favor of the high school’s infrastructure improvements.
School board president Karla DeSpain said it was impossible to find the perfect site, with infrastructure.
“If we had five choices of sites, I would put it out to everyone for a vote, but we’ve been looking and this was the only site we found,” she said. “We cannot find the perfect site.”
Councilman Karl Skala criticized the district’s decision to exclude the public in its search for land.
“I don’t see any other way for a future bond measure to pass, unless you get the public on board with this,” he said. “The public are the folks you need to get information to.”
“Point well taken,” Chase said in response to Skala’s comments. She said the public was involved in an 18-month study that found that the majority of Columbia residents wanted a third high school.
“I don’t think there’s any question that we need a new high school,” Wade said, “We’ve known that for five years.”
DeSpain said the district is still entertaining the possibility of building at a different site, but only one other landowner has come forward with a formal offer.