Group shares ideas for Jefferson City Public Schools

Although their work is far from complete, a stakeholders group charged with envisioning the future of the Jefferson City Public Schools was given an opportunity to share their own ideas last week.

Known as the Long Range Facilities Planning Committee, the 33-member group represents various factions of the city, from Chamber of Commerce-types to retired school personnel and involved parents. The team has been divided into two groups — one charged with addressing the fraught high school situation; the other examining the needs of elementary-age students.

Facilitator Kenny Southwick, an educational planner with the Kansas City-based firm, ACI Boland Architects, launched Thursday’s meeting by asking: “Does anyone think everything is OK with the school district right now? And there is no work to be done?”

No one raised their hands.

“That’s the basis we’re working from right now,” he said.

After separating into two groups, each of the 33 participants was given an opportunity to share their own personal vision for how the district ought to proceed vis-à-vis future construction. Southwick directed listeners to let each person say their piece without interruption or argument.

After each spoke, the teams then sorted compatible ideas into groups. They then listed the pros and cons of each proposal.

“When we go to the town hall meeting at the end of March, we’ll take to (the public) multiple solutions,” explained Southwick. “And we’ll present those four to five different solutions.”

Whither the High School?

Launching the high school conversation, Rod Burnett — an ardent supporter of two schools — exhorted listeners to adhere to two “foundational ideas.”

“We have to take into consideration what the community wants and what they are willing to pay for,” he said.

One of the first to speak, Pam Murray supported having two high schools, each housing about half of the seven career academies currently being organized for next year’s ninth-grade class.

Murray also felt that the Jays sports complex and stadium could continue to be used by both high schools. “Sharing them fosters a sense of community,” she said.

Murray said a smaller school body would foster better relationships among students and teachers and encourage more students to participate in after-school activities.

Former high school teacher Lonnie Schnieder raised concerns that trying to upgrade and maintain the three existing high school structures — the Simonsen 9th Grade Center, Nichols Career Center and the 609 Union St. campus — would be prohibitively costly.

“I’m more opposed now than I ever was,” he said, questioning the feasibility of updating the aging facilities. “My solution is to build two new high schools in new locations.”

He didn’t have a preference whether the two high schools were divided by academies or by geography. But he did say: “I would have to send my kids to (the old) JCHS if the new one was built,” he said.

Randy Allen agreed a second high school is needed.

“We could take the existing high school and convert it to an 800- to 1,000-student regular, traditional high school, like Helias or Blair Oaks,” he suggested. “The exterior should be fine. The gymnasium and cafeteria are sufficient.”

He noted, over the years, partitions have been erected at JCHS to create more teaching and office space in the crowded facility.

“The building needs to be decompressed,” he said. “It needs to be rehabbed, and made ready for new technology.”

Allen said the Highway 179 site — which the district purchased in 2012 —could be used to build a second high school capable of handling between 2,000 and 2,500 students. “It would be a high-tech high school, housing the seven career academies,” he envisioned.

Under his plan, open enrollment would be permitted, meaning students and families could choose which setting they prefer. In five or 10 years, the community’s preference would become apparent.

“We would build them different, on purpose, and give people a choice,” he said. “We would have to bus everybody and people could vote with their feet. This gives everybody the opportunity to get what they want.”

But other listeners raised concerns that open enrollment would lead to racial segregation.

Former Superintendent Chris Straub said an open enrollment plan in Columbia became untenable after 10 years when black students gravitated to Hickman while white students enrolled at Rock Bridge. “They had to put an end to it,” he said.

Alan Mudd, who serves on the Board of Education, didn’t rule out renovating the old campus, but noted the project would have to be “dollar-driven and practical.”

“When you renovate, you spend more to achieve what you want,” he cautioned.

But he added: “From the last election, the public was clear. They want to vote on two high schools.”

Straub asked: “What about two new high schools … at the same site on Highway 179?”

“The advantage is that practice and game facilities could be shared by both,” Straub said.

But he also said: “Unless it’s just cost-prohibitive, I think the community will not accept the fact very well if we just ‘trash’ … give away … the high school property. I just don’t think that’s going to be very acceptable … any plan has to come up with a use for the present JCHS.”

Dan Ortmeyer argued for a two high-school plan housing grades 9-12. He suggested the existing high school could be remodeled, but his vision for the second high school wasn’t as clear.

“I’m not sure about the Highway 179 site … maybe something further west would be better,” he said.

He thought the 179 site could be used for sports facilities shared by two high schools, or possibly a new career center. “We’re going to have to look at sharing a stadium,” Ortmeyer said.

Ortmeyer said having two high schools will allow more students to participate in extracurricular sports. “Jefferson City would no longer have the largest student body in the state,” he said.

Greg Gaffke worried if a new state-of-the-art high school is built, but the old building is left essentially as-is, it will be bad for the city’s future growth.

“It will lead to a lack of development east of town and a growth in development west of town,” he cautioned.

After each committee member was given a chance to share his or her vision, the group pared their ideas down into categories, including:

• Two new high schools.

• A new high school and a renovated JCHS.

• One new, large high school.

• Two schools divided by grade level, not geography.

The group then began to list the pros and cons of each scenario. Although they didn’t finish their work on Thursday, they will meet in February to finish the task.

Security, East Elementary viewed as priorities

At a separate table, about a dozen committee members discussed the needs of the district’s elementary and middle school students.

Although the group identified numerous reasons why East Elementary deserves attention, after much discussion they determined that addressing the district’s safety and security shortcomings — in an effort to prevent a tragedy like Sandy Hook — is more important in the short term.

“We’ve been pretty darn lucky we’ve not had an issue,” Michael Couty said.

“Who is going to argue we don’t need to spend money on safety and security, when you look at what has happened?” asked Steve Bruce.

However, much of the discussion focused on the needs of East Elementary School.

A recent architect’s report — commissioned for the committee and presented in December — documented numerous shortcomings in East’s physical facility. In their report, architects rated the school as “poor” for its maintainability and educational adequacy. They rated the school’s size, mechanical systems, structure and security features as “borderline.”

Overall, East earned the lowest score — 57 percent — of all of the district’s 11 elementary schools.

The committee also noted that East copes with the highest rate of poverty in the district; 87 percent of the school’s children are eligible for free- and reduced-price lunches, according to the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

They also noted that East is the only school in the district with a trailer.

The committee said they’d like to see land the district already owns — near Lewis and Clark Middle School — used as the site for a future elementary.

East Elementary is slated to be renovated in the summer of 2015, following West Elementary’s renovation this summer.

“Of course that is not going to take care of all problems,” said Assistant Superintendent Kathy Foster.

Other needs discussed by the elementary committee include a basic lack of space at West Elementary School and socio-economic and academic disparities between North Elementary and Callaway Hills Elementary.

As they concluded their work, Southwick encouraged committee members to take the conversation to their neighbors, friends, congregations and co-workers.

“You were identified as representing a group of stakeholders,” he reminded them. “I’d challenge you to go out into the community and begin to have conversations with the people you represent.”

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