Candidates agree East School needs attention

But they differ on how to proceed

Questions about East Elementary School — where test scores are flagging, poverty rates are high and a team of architects rated the facility as “borderline”— are cropping up for the five candidates running for the Jefferson City Board of Education this election season.

While two incumbents are mostly saying they want to wait and see what ideas develop from Long Range Facility Planning Committee, other campaigners have other visions for how they’d prefer to see the community proceed.

Incumbents John Ruth and Tami Turner want to first hear what the committee has to say.

“The board is all in agreement that we want to support the Long Range Facility Planning Committee’s recommendations,” Turner said.

John Ruth prefers not to single out a particular school, favoring focusing on the whole district instead.

“You won’t find me to be a one-issue candidate,” Ruth said.

Ruth noted the committee — the group has been tasked with creating a 20-year plan to address the district’s space needs — comprises a diverse group of stakeholders who represent Jefferson City.

“My first impulse is to support the efforts of that committee,” he said.

Asked about concerns at East Elementary School, Harold Coots said, “A new facility is probably needed.”

He noted in April 2013 voters rejected a proposal to build an east-side elementary — it was combined with the higher-profile plan for a replacement high school — but Coots believes it wasn’t due to a lack of support for a new elementary.

“It appears the driving force for the rejection was the high school,” he said. “I don’t think the rejection was based on a new elementary for East. I wonder why it hasn’t been brought forward as a smaller issue, since it is something everyone agrees needs to be corrected.”

Turner, currently the board’s president, said the district obtained land for a new East Elementary School in February 2011. She also noted the district keeps a list of schools they plan to renovate and the existing East Elementary School is slated for renovation — as an elementary — in the summer of 2015.

Turner said every building has a school improvement plan. She noted, during this week’s spring break, East’s principal and teachers are traveling to Quincy, Ill., to meet with staff who cope with similar challenges.

“The public needs to know at all the buildings we’ve empowered the staff to come up with solutions,” she said.

But Turner believes the board faces governance concerns larger than a single building. Rather than focusing on shortcomings at East Elementary, Turner turned the lens toward district-wide successes.

“We’ve not missed, once, giving teachers increases. Unlike other districts that are facing budget cuts, we’ve not closed buildings or closed programs, and some are growing by leaps and bounds,” she added.

She also noted the district’s middle schools are examining the need to expand their fine arts programs and even very small children — pre-kindergarten — are being encouraged to think about the future with the “Destination Graduation” program.

Both Turner and candidate Steve Bruce emphasized the empathy they have for the challenges teachers face, particularly in buildings like East.

“They deal with situations and challenges that are hard for us to wrap our heads around,” Bruce said.

Bruce, who talked with Principal Julie Martin about the school, said: “The staff is amazing. You can see the dedication and the compassion. They are determined to do the best for those kids.”

But he noted the stage and recess areas for the children are very small and there is little parking available.

Bruce is advocating rebuilding the bonds of trust between the district and its patrons.

“Right now, the relationship of trust between the board and the voters is strained … this is based on what others are telling me,” Bruce said.

He sees safety and security issues as one of the district’s key weaknesses.

He’s worried that, without locked doors, intruders have easy access to the schools. Fixing that, he has said, will go a long way toward rebuilding trust in the district.

He wants to see the district pursue both the summer projects and some of the safety and security initiatives, by carving out money from the budget and using some of the district’s reserve funds. He said he knows the district can’t go forward with large changes — such as building new vestibules for some of the schools — without voter-approved bonds, but he’d like to see some of the smaller projects, like buzz-in doors, be attempted. He noted the district already is deficit spending, within responsible parameters.

“There has to be a way to address both needs. Both are of paramount importance. The problems continue to persist,” Bruce said. “I don’t think we should wait for voter approval. It’s something we need to include in our planning. The need at East is indisputable. We need to take a look at what we can accomplish now.”

Ken Theroff said, because of media attention, issues that likely were already on the school district’s radar have been brought to the surface.

“Everyone wants to come up with a good solution,” Theroff said.

Theroff said he became aware of the school’s physical plant as a part of his work on the LRFPC.

“There are problems with the plant at East School … I’m talking about structural problems and functional obsolescence,” he said, pointing to a lack of playground space. “There are a lot of things with that campus that we need to address. Every student deserves to learn in a positive, healthy environment. It’s evidenced from the studies we’ve seen we definitely need to improve East.”

Theroff said some people have asked why West Elementary School is being remodeled this summer, instead of East. Both schools have the same floor plans and were built at the same time. Recently a group of architects gave East a score of 57.4 and West a score 60.7, rating both buildings as “borderline.”

“The ship has sailed on the West renovation. It will happen this summer,” he said.

“I think it’s fortunate it’s working that way because we still don’t know the future of East School,” he added, noting it’s still possible voters will want to build a new elementary on the site procured in 2011.

Theroff said leaders are not yet certain if they want to remodel the 75-year-old building, re-purpose it for another use, or asking voters to approve a construction request that could include a bond issue.

He said he could see that latter idea happening soon.

“With all this uncertainty in the air, it’s better to do the renovations at West Elementary School while we continue to study what happens at East,” he said.

Although Theroff sees East Elementary as a high priority, it’s not the highest priority, he said.

“One of my real priorities is to look at safety in the schools,” he said.

Like Bruce, he’s concerned about intruders.

Theroff wonders if the roughly $2 million currently being set aside annually to remodel buildings could be reallocated toward safety initiatives. “The Jefferson City Police Department is currently doing a study of the district’s safety needs,” he said.

Related:

Five seeking three seats on JC School Board

5 candidates weigh in on issues facing school district

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