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Columbia offers blueprint for gaining support for new school

Battle High School in Columbia, Mo., cost $75.1 million to build and will open this fall.

Battle High School in Columbia, Mo., cost $75.1 million to build and will open this fall.

Leaders and residents alike have been debating for decades the merits of building a second high school in Jefferson City, but what will it take to move the needle? 

In April, Jefferson City’s Board of Education worked to persuade voters to approve a $79 million bond issue for a new high school and an elementary school, but the initiative failed.

In the aftermath of that decision, both school district leaders and critics recognized that multiple factors may have led to voters’ rejection of the board’s plan. Among those reasons included some residents’ preference for a second high school, as opposed to a single replacement school; disagreements about the true cost of operating one versus two schools; and questions about whether school leaders were listening to the community’s opinions.

It’s likely board members and administrators eventually will craft another plan to take to voters.

Other school districts across the state have faced — and overcome — similar challenges. Here’s how they did it.

In Columbia, the perception that the district’s secondary schools were too crowded compelled the community to agree to build Battle High School — Columbia’s third, after Hickman (opened in 1927) and Rock Bridge (1973).

It was time

Michelle Baumstark, community relations director for the Columbia Public Schools, said school leaders realized they wanted to include ninth-graders back in the high school setting, and there was a growing awareness in the district — which has both middle schools and junior highs — that students were being asked to make too many transitions between kindergarten and graduation.

But it took the development of a long-range plan and tremendous amounts of community engagement to convince Columbia voters it was time.

“Engagement. Engagement. Engagement. This is their (the residents’) plan. This is what they want for their schools. As educators, it’s really easy to say, ‘This is what’s good for kids.’ But it doesn’t matter if that’s not what your community wants,” she said.

Over the years, numerous rounds of committees — involving hundreds of stakeholders in the district — have met to discuss everything from where the new school should be located to what it should look like. Columbia has so many resident committees they actually have a committee set up solely to organize all the other ones.

Baumstark said, after the facilities plan came out, district leaders went to the voters for an initial $60 million in 2007, with the idea that the new high school would be built in three phases.

“We were looking at three consecutive bond issues for $60 million each,” she said.

That first bond issue passed with 76 percent approval.

“Then the economy changed,” she said. “We had some difficulty here. We knew that, financially, we were going to have to go out to our community and ask for a tax levy (increase). That ultimately failed in 2008. So we went through a series of budget reductions.”

Also, leadership in the superintendent’s office changed.

Changing course

Along the way, many people made it known they didn’t like the location selected for the new high school. It was considered too far away from the city’s core and didn’t have enough road infrastructure.

“We had another site evaluation committee come together made up of community members, city and county officials, who looked at another set of properties, and we purchased a different property,” Baumstark said. (Both sites are east of the city, but the final one is located to the north.)

Finding the right place for the new school was not easy.

“It’s really hard to find 80-plus acres of land in any area that’s going to be undeveloped,” she lamented.

After working out agreements with the land developers and the Missouri Department of Transportation, district leaders evaluated where they were in the construction process.

Baumstark said: “We re-evaluated and said, ‘Ya know what? The economy has tanked. It’s actually a really good time to build because of that. We need to take advantage of some of the opportunities that are out there for construction work.’

“It was a huge opportunity for the school district.”

Baumstark said school leaders decided to combine the last two bond issues into one. In 2010, 70 percent of voters passed a bond issue for $120 million.

“So we’re in a good position at that point in time,” Baumstark said.

Being able to build the high school in one fell swoop, rather than three phases, was better for students.

“That was a big shift for our community to go from three phases to one, but it saved us money,” she said. “And we avoided crazy transitions for kids over a period of six years.”

Budget

The district budgeted $75.1 million to build the school: $68 million was spent on constructing the school and $7 million was spent on furniture and equipment. The construction cost, per square foot, was $216.

As they started the building process, Columbia decided to hire a construction manager, as opposed to a general contractor. Although the construction manager — J.E. Dunn — organized the subcontractors, the firm did not issue bids.

“We bid everything out. It allowed a lot more opportunities to have local companies involved in the process and gave us more control over costs,” Baumstark said. “We’re on time and on budget, and I think it has to do with the level of micromanagement by the school district.”

Other districts have also found that high levels of community engagement — combined with obvious signs of overcrowding — is critical for persuading voters to check yes in the ballot box.

In North Kansas City, serious problems with overcrowding finally caught the public’s attention and galvanized the community to build Staley High School, which opened in 2009.

Bob Maggio, executive director for support services in the North Kansas City School District, said it took five or six years of work on the part of the administrative staff before they approached the voters in 2005 with a request to build a new high school. The bond issue passed without any organized opposition.

“No one came out of the woodwork,” he said.

He said when school board members and administrators lead the fight, the public perceives they have a special interest in the project. It takes interest from parents and businesses for an idea to gain traction.

“We probably thought we needed a new school for a long time before that,” Maggio said, but he added it took time to build community support.

“The moral of the story is that you do need someone, other than the school district administration, really beating the drum. You have to get the patrons on board, and then the administrators can support that.”

As they planned for Staley High School, Maggio said administrators knew they couldn’t ignore the other three high schools if they wanted the plan to succeed.

“You can’t forget about the other three,” he said.

To ameliorate those concerns, additional gymnasiums were built at the older schools and their science facilities were upgraded. “We took the designs for the new high school science labs and used the exact same designs for the older high schools. Now you can’t tell if you are in the newest or the oldest,” he said.

While each school has its own personality, school district leaders have made a conscious choice to make the educational experience the same at every institution.

Columbia’s leaders did something similar.

“Parity — making sure all kids have equal opportunity to high quality — is important,” she said.

To that end, an auxiliary gym and improvements to the school’s weight and locker rooms were built at Rock Bridge High School. At Hickman, crews have built a new competition gymnasium, made improvements to the football stadium’s grandstand and constructed new career center space for programs such as culinary training and broadcast journalism.

“They are really popular programs; those courses are really full,” Baumstark said.

Accommodating the needs of the incoming freshmen was part of the thinking behind building the extra gym space.

“They have a P.E. requirement, and you can’t do that with only one gym,” she said.

New scoreboards also were installed at all three high schools. And installing field turf — instead of grass — at all three schools was a “sticking point,” Baumstark said.

Companion article:

Communities share recent experience building new high schools

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