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JC to look at high school options again

Committee to develop long-range building plan for district

Jefferson City public school community leaders once again are examining how to solve the district’s long-term space needs, particularly at the high school.

Superintendent Brian Mitchell told the Jefferson City Board of Education last week: “We’re in the process of putting together a committee of 30 to 35 members.”

Although school leaders have discussed the topic in the intervening months, the initiative marks the first time since April’s bond issue — when voters rejected the board’s request to issue $79 million in bonds to build a new senior high — that they have broached the topic with a plan of action.

He said Friday afternoon: “As soon as the very next day (after the election), we were saying: ‘What do we do next? What do we do to get the process restarted?’”

Mitchell said it took a couple of months of conversation to start anew. Now he said the district has an opportunity to develop a 20-year master facilities plan, one that not only addresses existing space needs, but anticipates where new ones might crop up.

Mitchell said a master facility plan is needed because the district is facing its fifth kindergarten class in a row that exceeds 700 students. “The need didn’t go away,” with the rejection of the April bond issue, he said.

The new committee has been dubbed the “Long Range Facility Planning Committee.” It was organized July 31.

The committee’s charge will be to explore the various options, collect community feedback and settle on a consensus people can embrace.

Mitchell said, so far, two people — Bob Weber, who serves as JCPS director of facilities, and Lorelei Schwartz, a CPA in Jefferson City — are leading the effort. They will be assisted by consultants from the Kansas City-based architectural firm ACI.

Mitchell said the committee will be divided into two subcommittees: one tasked with examining the space needs for grades 9-12; the other will look at needs for grades K-8.

Two school assistant superintendents — Myron Graber and Kathy Foster — have been tapped to guide the K-8 subcommittee, with more members expected to be added in the weeks to come.

For the high school subcommittee, four residents — Debra Walker, Rod Burnett, Chris Straub and Ross Kassman — already have been asked to participate in the project. Walker was a proponent of the Board of Education’s plan to build a replacement high school. Burnett was a leader of the movement to build a second — not a replacement — high school. Straub is a retired JCPS superintendent who led the effort to build the two middle schools. And Kassman is a civil engineer in Jefferson City with Engineering Surveys and Services.

Kassman — who approached the district with his ideas — can offer a fresh perspective, Mitchell said. The 31-year-old played three sports at JCHS before he graduated in 2000.

The day after the election, Kassman was having a cup of coffee with a friend.

“We were trying to understand why (the April bond issue) would go down to defeat by such a wide margin,” he said Friday afternoon. “Our conclusion was there was not enough buy-in from the community as a whole.”

The two concluded that the outreach effort to the public was ultimately ineffective.

“It interested me to see if we would be able to engage the community,” he said.

He brought his ideas to assistant superintendent David Luther, whom he knew from his high school days. And Luther connected Kassman with Mitchell, who was glad to listen.

“I was interested in Ross’s help,” Mitchell explained. “He hadn’t jumped in on either side of the debate. He was a neutral person. His call gave us an opportunity to allow a community member who was very interested, but did not have any agenda, to help with that process.”

Kassman said he became a father for the first time in March. He believes the district needs better facilities, but he’s not certain if that means one high school, or several, ought to be built. But he believes a high-quality education system is critical for the city’s future.

“I thought about my son being jammed in Simonsen 9th Grade Center or JCHS. It didn’t seem like a good solution,” he said.

He wants to find out what the community is willing to support financially and what the new high school will look like.

Kassman envisioned a committee stocked with representatives from various interest groups.

“And from there, they will invite the public in and have a town hall format,” he said.

Mitchell reaffirmed the group’s goal is to gather public input over a long period of time. He’s hopeful by the fall of 2014, the committee will be able to submit a master plan to the Board of Education for its perusal and adoption. The board then will be able to decide a date for the next operating levy increase and bond issue.

“It really is a clean slate,” Mitchell said. “All options are on the table. We are going to try as openly and transparently as possible to share as many options as possible.”

He added: “Now we’re in the process of identifying committee members. But they are going to be working very hard ... we’re hoping to have a product in one year. The goal is the committee is going to be working to get as much community involvement as possible.”

“The whole idea is everyone has to have an open mind,” Kassman said.

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