School board approves northeast site for new high school

Monday, November 12, 2007 | 11:38 p.m. CST; updated 2:18 a.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008
David Bennett, Vice President of Engineering Surveys and Services, speaks at the Columbia School Board meeting regarding the site for the third comprehensive high school on Monday. To the right, John McCormick, a member of the High School Site Evaluation Committee, and Barbara McCormick listen attentively. "We should choose a site that best serves the students," said John McCormick, adding that it needs to instill a sense of community while at the same time not waste any resources.

Correction: This story has been updated to correct the name of the leader of the High School Site Evaluation Committee. It is Jim Ritter.

Columbia’s next public high school will be built on the 80-acre St. Charles Road Development site in the northeast part of the district.

The 7-0 vote by the Columbia School Board late Monday evening means that architect Andy Anderson and his team at DLR Group in Kansas City can begin designing the school, which is scheduled to open in the fall of 2010 for ninth-grade students.

The approval — accompanied by little board discussion, no public comment and an atmosphere of satisfaction — caps months of controversy that substantially increased attendance at board meetings and interest in district affairs.

“Volunteer your time now that you know what it’s like to be involved in Columbia Public Schools,” said board member Michelle Gadbois. “We hope to see you all again. Don’t be strangers.”

For the property, the district will pay $900,000 — which, as it happens, is what remains in its land acquisition coffers from the 2004 bond issue. Of the $1.4 million raised then, $500,000 was used to buy 80 acres southeast of Columbia known as the Vemer property; the board approved that parcel in June as the site for the new high school.

Reached in New Mexico, where he lives, former landowner Turner Vemer said Monday afternoon that Public Schools Superintendent Phyllis Chase has promised him that the district will not sell the land.

“Dr. Chase told me that they were going to hold on to it forever because they’re going to use it for a school in the future,” Vemer said. “They can do whatever they want to do, and it’s fine with me.”

Later when told that the board went for a different site, he said, “I think that’s lovely.”

The St. Charles Road Development site north of Interstate 70 was rated No. 1 among six proposals reviewed last month by the High School Site Evaluation Committee. Informally presenting the site to the board Monday, Chase summarized the work of the committee.

And then there was silence. Board members flipped through the committee’s ratings and comments, and no one seemed to want to talk first.

Finally, board member Tom Rose moved to rescind approval of the Vemer site and purchase the St. Charles Road site for the new high school. Board Vice President Darin Preis seconded the motion.

A brief discussion among the board members followed, with the chief concern being the safety of students commuting on I-70.

Board President Karla DeSpain addressed the concerns, saying, “There are alternative routes, and there will be better alternative routes by the time the school opens.”

Then it was the public’s turn to comment — only no one did.

DeSpain seemed incredulous, asking the audience: Did no one want to say anything?

Still there was silence among the 30 or so people remaining at the district’s administration building. Earlier, there had been about twice that number.

The board’s approval of a new site ends several months of controversy that followed the mid-June decision to locate the new public high school on the Vemer property. Community concerns included the site’s current lack of infrastructure such as sewer lines and adequate roads, its five-mile distance from the nearest city limit and public exclusion from the selection process.

Another hot button was putting the high school in the southeastern part of the district. The feeling among some was that the north was being ignored.

“Now we have a grocery store and a high school in the north, all at the same time,” Gadbois remarked after the vote.

In August, the board and the district said new locations would be considered and asked property owners willing to sell parcels of sufficient acreage to come forward.

Chase then appointed the 21-citizen committee led by former schools Superintendent Jim Ritter to evaluate those sites.

The committee met twice and reviewed road cost estimates, population density information and emergency response times in addition to the surveys made of each property by Engineering Surveys & Services of Columbia. Members then rated the properties on a scale of one to seven, and the results were averaged. Of the six offers, the St. Charles Road Development property was rated 6.3, while the Vemer property came in second to last at 3.1.

Late Monday afternoon, Robert Wolverton declined to comment on how he and the other four owners came up with the $900,000 price tag for the St. Charles Road site.

Next to Lake of the Woods Golf Course, the land along the scenic two-lane St. Charles Road was a testament to autumn on Monday afternoon. After the downpours, the changing trees glowed red, and the misty air smelled of damp piles of leaves.

Within a few years, yellow school buses will be part of the scenery.

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