I recently appeared before the City Council to encourage them to sell some park land to the Columbia Public School District and use the money to acquire new park lands. I suggested the city council offer to sell 20 acres of Cosmopolitan Park for the new high school, with the remaining Cosmo Park acreage to be used for joint city/district use. The park’s outdoor natural and recreational use and the school’s selected indoor facilities would be used jointly by the district and city residents of all ages. I proposed a joint city/district planning committee to negotiate the joint usage arrangement. My focus was on the current search for the city’s third high school. But, given current population projections, it should be no surprise to the council that the district will be selecting school sites nine more times in the next 10 to 13 years (six more elementary schools, a middle school, a junior high and a fourth high school). So, why not consider future school-park ventures to better utilize the community’s facility needs?
The city has needs just like the district and the two bodies should be able to work together to coordinate their needs. With its purchase of the Vemer property, the school board would require substantial upgrades to both New Haven and Rangeline roads to accommodate the additional traffic from the city. On the other hand, the city needs east-west roads on the north side of Columbia to connect neighborhoods and take pressure off the Interstate 70 corridor through our city. The Cosmo Park site could cause road improvement where it is currently needed. The school will need student bus transportation. City buses have excess capacity. A bus routed through Cosmo Park would not only save school busing costs but also open the park to families without a car. The city needs a community center on the north side so kids have something to do outside of school hours. A school close to neighborhoods could offer this. Also, the high school facility could periodically open its doors to indoor sports: adult basketball and swimming in the evening with joint parking facilities and additional outdoor facilities in the surrounding park.
One council member is concerned about the loss of park space while another wants a naturalist to enhance the park use. Parks are not wildlife preserves to be enjoyed by only a few. They are to be enjoyed by everyone. Why not enhance our park use rather than limit it? The city could contract with a high school science teacher to act as the park naturalist. The sale of 20 acres in Cosmo Park or immediately adjacent to it would be a win-win for the city and the district. A park land sale would generate about $1 million for the park district to search for the next park-school joint venture, and this would still be a bargain for the district. If city council can authorize the private development of a baseball stadium in the 16 acre American Legion Park on the east side, why not authorize 20 acres for a new high school on the northwest side?
The problem with the five east side sites currently under consideration can be seen in the district’s own demographic data. It clearly shows there are more than four times more students drawn from the west side (12,683) as there are on the east side (2,919) of Columbia. With less than 20 percent of public school students living on the east side, the choice of a high school site on the east or southeast side doesn’t minimize transportation cost; it maximizes these costs. In addition, a geographic area large enough to encompass one-third of the current student population would surround one or both of the current high schools. Can you imagine a school bus full of students riding past Hickman or Rock Bridge high schools to arrive at a high school on one of the eastern sites currently under consideration?
Voters recently agreed to provide the school board with a $60 million bond issue; $21 million of this is earmarked for Phase 1 or Phase 3 of the new high school. It is time the council and the district work together to accommodate each other’s needs. Failure of the city council and the district to consult with one another only hurts taxpayers who will be expected to pay the bill.