Communities share recent experience building new high schools

Above is the gymnasium at the new Battle High School in Columbia.

Above is the gymnasium at the new Battle High School in Columbia.

While Jefferson City continues to delve into the process of attempting a new high school, other communities — Columbia, Wentzville, North Kansas City and Joplin — have successfully built high schools in recent years.

State-of-the-art high schools aren’t built every year in Missouri, but these districts have managed — even in the face of the past decade’s tough economy — to persuade voters to part with the tax dollars it takes to build a new school.

Jason Hoffman, chief financial officer for the district, said the district originally considered building a 225,000-square-foot second high school designed to serve about 1,600 students. Instead, administrators and board leaders opted for a 450,000-square-foot facility to replace the existing one, the Simonsen 9th Grade Center and the Nichols Career Center.

If voters had approved the plan, Hoffman estimated the per-square-foot building cost would have been $165. 

(In Jefferson City’s case, the current high school, including the Nichols Career Center, at 609 Union St. is 266,000 square feet.)

Hoffman said the district is facing real concerns with overcrowding. He noted that the JCHS gym stage is being used for classes every hour of the day. 

“That’s one of our biggest problems ... gym space. It was built for only boys’ sports,” he said.

He noted 665 ninth-graders were enrolled at Simonsen this year. By 2019, Hoffman believes the building will have to handle 862 teens. “Eight hundred sixty-two kids in Simonsen? Can you imagine?” he asked.

Enrollment estimates also show the size of the lower grades is expected to grow from an average of 639 to an average of 765.

Hoffman said several people in the community have expressed their disapproval about the district’s decision to buy the site located east of Missouri 179. Others complained school leaders have a “Taj Mahal” in mind.

But Hoffman said: “We’re in a Catch-22. I don’t think (voters) would pass the bond issue without knowing where it might be and what it might look like. We try to have the voters informed as much as possible.” 

He noted Jefferson City’s cost-per-square foot is lower than other similar buildings constructed across the state. 

Hoffman said architects who were consulted over the project agreed that $79 million was adequate to build a new school. But specific cost estimates for building a new high school won’t be generated until voters give their assent. 

“In order to get to that level of detail, we have to have architects draw up a building. And that costs money,” he said. 

Battle High School in Columbia

Location: 7575 E. St. Charles Rd.

Construction cost: $75.1 million

Square footage: 300,000

Student population: 1,063, estimated for fall 2014

Battle High School is slated to be open this fall to grades 9-11, but parents, teachers and students already are meeting there to prepare for next year’s extracurricular activities.

“We have a lot of things that are going to be happening in August,” said Michelle Baumstark, community relations director for the Columbia Public Schools.

Not only is the district changing its grade configurations, it’s reorganizing all the teachers in the secondary buildings. The ninth-graders will be joining the high schools as freshmen, and the middle schools and junior highs will be combined. Start times will be affected. New school boundaries have been established. And the district has formulated a new, stricter school-to-school transfer process.

“All that because we wanted to build a new high school,” she said.

At Battle High School, the students also played a role in designing the new building, including more indoor/outdoor space and a balcony that overlooks the football stadium.

“Students visit a lot of different schools, and they had some cool ideas,” she said. “We wanted to include things important to them.”

Establishing new boundaries was one of the district’s biggest struggles, taking two years to finalize. The goal was to balance the city’s racial and socioeconomic demographics and to do it in a way that takes into consideration transportation issues and natural boundaries.

“We probably went through 600 different boundary scenarios. We really spent months gathering feedback … making sure everybody was where they wanted to be,” she said. “People don’t like change.”

All three schools will be on block scheduling, as a result of the new school.

What’s driving the need for the new high school? 

Primarily, population growth. Between 2000 and 2010, Columbia grew by almost 24,000 people, a 28.4 percent increase. 

Baumstark surmised that people — both patients and staff — are drawn to the community’s medical facilities. She also said regional economic developers have been successful at creating jobs and retirees have found they enjoy living in Columbia, too.

Columbia has not yet taken the leap to implementing career-path academies, although leaders there are intrigued by the idea, particularly the way career-oriented learning can be made more relevant to teens. They are in the process of implementing “Project Lead the Way,” which encourages students to consider careers in science, technology, engineering and math.

“We’re talking about that concept, but we’re eager to see what happens in Jefferson City,” she said.

Liberty High School in Wentzville

Location: 2275 Sommers Road, O’Fallon

Construction cost: $46 million (Phase One)

Square footage: 227,000 square feet

Student population: 1,300 students

Blair Oaks School District may accurately claim to be among the fastest growing districts in the state, but the prize for No. 1 recently went to the Wentzville R-4 School District, which saw its district grow by more than 39,000 residents between 2000 and 2010.

More than 71,000 people — drawn by affordable housing and thousands of empty platted lots — live in the district. (For comparison’s sake, almost 72,000 people live in the Jefferson City Public School District.)

In the past 12 years, the Wentzville school district has built 10 schools, including the new Liberty High School, scheduled to open this fall.

Convincing voters the school was needed wasn’t easy.

“It was difficult,” said Kari Monsees, chief financial officer for the Wentzville R-4 School District. “It took us two attempts, and both were close. It’s just tough to get an increase in challenging economic times.”

With 800 students in each of the upper grades and 1,100 in the elementary grades, administrators felt they had to act.

“We had so many kids in the pipeline, we had to do something,” he said.

One problem is that Wentzville’s growth in enrollment had outpaced its ability to acquire enough money to build the classrooms. Because of a state law that prevents a district from borrowing more than 15 percent of its total assessed valuation, using low-interest general obligation bonds to borrow more money wasn’t an option.

Instead, the district asked voters to approve a 30-cent levy increase that was used to create a revenue stream. The funding allowed the district to borrow money through a lease-purchase agreement. Under the promise to voters, the district is building $66 million in improvements, including the new high school ($46 million) and nine additions at other schools in the district.

The land for the new high school was a separate purchase.

The $46 million isn’t enough to build a complete facility, but it did provide enough space for the school’s freshman class of 280 students.

“We’re starting with one grade. We’re going to bring in a grade level every year,” Monsees said. “It will relieve pressure mainly on Timberland High School and to a lesser extent on Holt High School.”

(The district will have three high schools and an alternative program.)

Called “Phase One,” the new school will be 227,000 square feet in size and is expected to have space for 1,300 students. They are paying $203 per square foot for the facility.

“We have nice buildings, but not Cadillacs,” Monsees said. “The nicest thing about the new high school is the site, which has a small stream, a bridge and some natural areas.”

It won’t have a second gymnasium or an auditorium. Once finished, the new high school is anticipated to cost between $60 million and $65 million, and will be able to serve up to 1,800 students.

But the district doesn’t have a clear approach yet for raising that money.

“It all depends on property values, which have declined,” Monsees said.

Lowered property values translate into lesser assessments for the schools. Monsees said officials felt fairly certain they had seen the last of the economic downturn in 2009, but 2011 and 2013 weren’t much better. Monsees refused to speculate about whether the district would have any extra funding available soon to complete the high school.

“It can change so dramatically in a short period of time. We’re more optimistic than we have been for years,” he said.

Monsees said Wentzville did consider trying career academies — similar to Jefferson City’s approach — but opted to adhere to a traditional approach.

“We’re not done building high schools. Academies make sense if you’re done or if you’re on your last ... but we think we’ll need a fourth high school in 15 years,” he said.

Staley High School in North Kansas City

photo

Submitted photo

Above is Staley High School in North Kansas City, Mo.

Location: 2800 N.E. Shoal Creek Parkway, Kansas City

Construction cost: $63 million

Square footage: 315,000 square feet

Student population: 1,300-1,400 students

North Kansas City Schools was a three-high-school district since the 1970s, until overcrowding in the schools — first noticed about 13 years ago — started to force change.

“We were holding five and six classes in the cafeteria and three in the back of the school’s auditorium. Students were taking notes in their laps,” said Bob Maggio, executive director for support services in the North Kansas City School District. “Patrons, parents, students and teachers all started to raise questions.”

In 2009, Staley High School opened.

“It’s truly a state-of-the-art property,” Maggio said.

Maggio said the building reflects the values of the North Kansas City School District. It’s safe, energy efficient and able to handle the latest in technological demands. All the classrooms have a projection system. Its brick exterior matches other schools in the district. It’s designed with future expansion in mind. It includes a TV studio for school news broadcasts. It includes all the usual athletic facilities — football field, track and tennis courts.

“It looks like a brick school house,” Maggio said.

Designed to meet the needs of 1,600 students, the new school is 315,000 square feet in size. It cost $63 million to build, or $200 per square foot.

To make the plan work, the school purchased an additional 20 buses.

“When you build a new school, you have to plan for more staff, more buses, more food service. A lot of things are impacted,” Maggio said.

What’s driving the area’s growth?

Maggio said workers — particularly city employees — prefer North Kansas City because it feels like a suburb. For years, Kansas City residents gravitated to southern communities like Leawood and Overland Park. Now the growth is headed north.

“We have a little country, we’re a little rural, but we are in the city limits, and we serve 13 municipalities,” he said. “We’re still growing by 300 students a year. Building a new middle school is next.”

Maggio said when Staley was being considered, the district contemplated an academies approach. An international baccalaureate program already existed at the oldest high school and it seemed possible to identify separate career paths at the others.

In the end, the district decided to “externalize” their career programming by placing students with businesses in the community.

So, for example, a student interested in medicine will take some classes at North Kansas City Hospital and a student interested in manufacturing will someday spend half of the instructional day at the Ford Plant in Claycomo.

“It’s a complex, interwoven process,” Maggio said.

Today, each of the high schools have around 1,300 to 1,400 students. He acknowledged some research has shown the ideal size for a school is 600 to 900 students.

“When it all shook out, I think it’s a fairly manageable number,” he added.

Changing the school’s boundaries was one of the more controversial calls administrators faced with the new school. Eventually, they decided upon a clockwise movement of boundaries to “fill” the new school, although senior students were not required to move.

“There was push back,” Maggio recalled.

One of the biggest peeves came from patrons who cared about their school’s football program and didn’t want to see talented players leave.

Joplin High School in Joplin

Location: 2104 Indiana Ave., Joplin

Construction cost: $116 million

Square footage: 504,000 square feet

Student population: 2,500

The Joplin Public Schools had one of the most unique pathways toward building anew, since their former high school was demolished by a tornado in May 2011.

The new building is in the “red iron stage,” said Mike Johnson, director of construction. 

Once finished, it will be 504,000 square feet in size and will house up to 3,000 students, although opening day enrollment in the fall of 2014 is expected to be more like 2,500. 

Johnson said prior to the storm, the school had some overcrowding issues, but no one was talking yet about building another.

The new school is being built from a variety of sources: insurance proceeds, federal disaster assistance and public donations. 

Joplin’s voters also agreed, in April 2012, to approve a $62 million bond issue to help replace the demolished school. 

Johnson said, once finished, the new school is expected to cost $116 million, or $230 per square foot. 

The new school features an auditorium, black box theater, classroom wings, a greenhouse, restaurant-grade facilities for a culinary program and all the usual sporting facilities including three gymnasiums. Marketing and business students will be tasked with operating a coffee shop and store at the school. 

Like Jefferson City, Joplin is pursuing the academies model of education at the new school, which leaders there call “career paths.” 

Because the tornado also devastated the school’s vocational technology building, a new one is being constructed on site. This time, it will be integrated into the new school. Students who walk past the career training classes will be able to see the work others are doing. 

“There’s a lot of transparency in the design,” Johnson said.

Like Columbia, Joplin is using a construction manager model, as opposed to a general contractor, to build the school. The district had recently built three middle schools when the tornado hit, and lessons from that experience were still fresh in administrators’ minds.

“We’re saving money,” he said. 

To cope with the lack of a facility, school leaders cleared out a 100-year-old school building for underclassmen to use and retrofitted an empty big box store for the upperclassmen.

Johnson said the mood of the community is “just get it done.” 

“They want things back to normal,” he said. “They see progress, but we can’t do it quickly enough. It takes time to do these things.”

Companion article:

Columbia offers blueprint for gaining support for new school

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