High school site debate mirrors history

Monday, October 29, 2007 | 9:16 p.m. CDT; updated 11:05 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

COLUMBIA — It’s 1925, and the Columbia school district is preparing to build a new high school. But the selected site is far from the city center, lacks improved roads and has no public sewer service.

Fast forward to 1967, and the same is true. With enrollment demanding a second major high school in the city, the powers that be have chosen property out in the middle of nowhere, somewhere south of town amid farm fields and forests. There are no city streets, no utilities, no surrounding development.

Sound familiar? Of course it does. Because the same debate that played out when Columbia Public Schools selected sites for Hickman High School 82 years ago and Rock Bridge High about 35 years ago is playing out again as the district searches for the best place to build a third major high school.

In the first two instances, the sites selected originally spawned loud public debate about location, utilities, road access and the need for annexation. But in both cases, the debate eventually quieted, the district built the school and the facility wound up thriving.

Whether that happens this time remains to be seen. Already the school district has received a public thrashing for its selection of property known as the Vemer site, several miles southeast of Columbia proper.

Like the Hickman and Rock Bridge sites before it, the Vemer site lacks good road access and utilities.

Public disdain for the choice grew so great that the school board and Superintendent Phyllis Chase appointed a committee to review several potential sites for the new high school. Next month, the school board is scheduled to review the committee’s findings and pick a site.

The debate thus far bears a remarkable resemblance to the previous two.

Roger Gafke, an emeritus professor at the Missouri School of Journalism, recalled the controversy surrounding the Hickman site in his book, “A History of Public School Education in Columbia.”

“Popularly known as the fairgrounds,” Gafke wrote, “(the Hickman tract) was largely undeveloped except for a racing track and temporary facilities used for fairs and carnivals.”

Gafke assembled much of his history from a series of Missourian articles at the time. Opponents of the site, he wrote, “charged the location was too far from the center of the white high school population, ... inaccessible because none of the streets leading to the site was paved; the promise of a highway beside a school was a disadvantage; the 40 acres would require too much money to maintain; development of the area with sewers, streets and other services would be too expensive for taxpayers and for the property owners nearby who would share the cost. ...”

Russell Thompson, who was assistant superintendent for Columbia Public Schools when the Rock Bridge site was chosen and who succeeded Robert Shaw as superintendent in 1976, said there was a great deal of public turmoil about the Hickman location.

“People complained that the site was way too far out of town, (it’s) way too much land,” Thompson said. “Everything was centered at that time on Broadway. Most (children) walked to school, and most people thought that walk would be difficult for their children.”

The same factors, along with rural angst over annexation, fueled controversy over the Rock Bridge site.

“I think people now believe that Rock Bridge was built in the center of a population,” Thompson said, “but it really wasn’t.”

Probably as well as anyone, Pamela (Welty) George, a member of the Rock Bridge High Class of 1974, the first to graduate from the school, remembers what the land south of Columbia was like before Rock Bridge was built.

“The only thing that was really out here ... was a little store up here called T-Top Market, and it was right here where the old highway was,” George said, pointing to the intersection of Old Route K and Green Meadows Road on a phone book map spread open on her kitchen table.

George speaks of the old highway, “that little access road,” often, and it takes a moment to decipher exactly which road she’s describing. On her map, the Old Route K is a thin red line west of the thicker line representing four-lane Providence Road.

Jim Ritter, who retired as superintendent of Columbia Public Schools in 2003, noted that Providence didn’t become a four-lane highway until well after Rock Bridge was built.

“There wasn’t a Southampton, either” Ritter said. “That road wasn’t built until three or four years ago, and most of the land south of Green Meadows was still farmland. Big farms were sitting out there.”

Today, the T-Top Market is gone, and the fields that once lined Providence near Rock Bridge have given way to strip malls filled with fast food restaurants, bars and video stores.

As a youngster, Pam Welty witnessed the tremendous development that came after the high school. Today, she lives with her husband on Oak Haven Drive, where her parents built the second house in that neighborhood in 1966.

Not far from either her present home or her childhood home is the Country Club of Missouri, where there used to be a go-kart track.

“People would come in and race their little go-karts,” George recalled. “It was an adult thing, too. The adults did it more so than anybody.”

“Where I live now was woods,” George said, “and then it slowly started developing as everything started coming out here.”

“When everything first started being built, all of us out here were kind of depressed,” George said. “We thought, ‘They’re taking away all of our trees, all of our farm ground and everything else.’”

Sewers were among the first challenges for the Rock Bridge site. Steve Hunt, manager of environmental services for the Columbia Public Works Department, said Rock Bridge was “connected to an existing sewage lagoon that served the Rock Bridge subdivision.”

“When the school was built, somebody — the city or the school — extended an 8-inch sewer pipe that did connect to a treatment facility, a city sewer,” Hunt said.

The lagoon remained in service until the early 1980s, when the city built its regional wastewater treatment plant. Thompson said the lagoon arrangement was temporary.

“The city had been planning on extending sewers south of town, and then State Farm purchased land south of town, and the city had to provide sewers for them,” Thompson said. “By then, you had homes along Green Meadows.”

Sewer service is one thing, but roads are another, and they’re pertinent to today’s search for a high school site. Ritter noted that some of the main roads serving Rock Bridge — Route K and the southern portion of Missouri 163 — are still two-lane roads without curbs or shoulders.

“Those two roads have been resurfaced and are smoother; a good deal of traffic comes down those roads, (but) these roads aren’t vastly different from the sites today,” Ritter said.

The site for Rock Bridge was first mentioned as early as July 12, 1966, when the Kansas City planning firm Hare & Hare released an updated master plan for Columbia through 1985. The Missourian on that date reported that Hare & Hare had proposed “a new senior high school somewhere on south Providence Road north of Route AC.”

Two years later, on April 12, 1968, the Missourian ran this caption under a hand-drawn map: “The site of the second senior high school for Columbia was picked last night at this location just one half-mile south of Route AC on Route K. The property, purchased for $2,500 an acre from Mr. and Mrs. Olin Hughes, includes a little over 42 acres. It lies about three-quarters of a mile north of Rock Bridge (Elementary) School.”

The site, however, conflicted with county residents in the area. In January 1967, a committee appointed by Boone County Board of Education President Merle Muhrer recommended that eight rural school districts consolidate in a ring around Columbia and provide K-12 education.

“The rural schools would have been a doughnut that formed around Columbia Public Schools, if you want to describe it that way,” Thompson said.

That plan, however, was directly at odds with the Rock Bridge site selection — and with Columbia’s aggressive push to annex land to the south. In the end, after protracted public debate about the quality of rural vs. urban education and about Columbia’s ability to serve newly annexed areas, voters approved ballot measures that nearly doubled the city’s size.

Still, it was the fall of 1973 before Rock Bridge High opened its doors to a young Pam Welty. The rapid expansion of Columbia’s school system made the district’s finances tight.

“We had to plan to build the high school in stages,” Thompson said. “We opened it with around 500 students, and with each phase we added students to it.”

George’s decision to transfer to Rock Bridge wasn’t nearly as difficult as getting the school built. She had started out at Rock Bridge Elementary School, and she wanted to end at Rock Bridge High. She remembers picking the school’s colors, mascot and fight song with her classmates that first year.

Tony Sargent, a district manager for circulation for the Missourian and a graduate of Rock Bridge High’s Class of 1975, has less rosy memories.

Sargent took shop in 1973. “They shouldn’t even have had shop class,” he said with a laugh. “All we had was a drill and a screwdriver. They ended up putting us to work putting the room numbers up outside the classroom. We put up the hangers for the towels, toilet paper and stuff like that for the bathroom facilities.”

Despite the growing pains — for the students and the school district — George emphasized the fun everyone had that first year.

“I wouldn’t have changed it for the world,” she said. “We came in with nothing and were just so proud to be there.”

Do you remember the debate about Rock Bridge High School's location? Let us know your experiences.

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