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Jefferson City Public Schools: No rush to rebuild Simonsen

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The EF-3 tornado that hit the former Simonsen 9th Grade Center on May 22 added another wrinkle in the Jefferson City School District building's already uncertain future.

As of last week, the tornado's damage to Simonsen was not yet quantified by insurance assessors, said Frank Underwood, JCPS director of facilities and transportation and safety and security coordinator.

Only when those damage numbers are known — along with how much of it property insurance will cover — will the district have an idea when contracts for rebuilding work might be bid out, Underwood said.

Long before the tornado, the Simonsen building, which had closed its doors to its last class of freshmen a few hours before the tornado, had a long list of needs.

Simonsen is tied with JCPS' building at 501 Madison St. — the Jefferson City Academic Center and Etta and Joseph Miller Performing Arts Center — as the oldest in the district, originally constructed in 1926. In Simonsen's case, it was occupied in 1938, according to a 2013 report from ACI Boland Architects.

Kansas City-based ACI Boland released its "School Facilities Appraisal" of JCPS' buildings in December 2013. In addition to calculating student capacities, the appraisal also rated the buildings' sites, structural and mechanical features, maintainability, safety and security, educational adequacy and environment for education.

In total, ACI Boland gave Simonsen 681 points out of a possible 1,000 in its appraisal. At 68.1 percent, it was a "borderline" rating, in the middle of a five rating-category scale that ranged from "very inadequate" and "poor" to "satisfactory" and "excellent."

Simonsen was not given the lowest rating by ACI Boland among JCPS schools. The JCAC building, West Elementary School and East Elementary School had lower borderline scores. Jefferson City High School, which is currently being renovated, was also given a borderline rating of 69.5 percent at the time.

Out of the six areas within buildings that ACI Boland evaluated, Simonsen was rated as borderline in its site, structural and mechanical features, safety and security, and educational adequacy.

Simonsen's maintainability and environment for education were rated as satisfactory.

Each of the six areas for which Simonsen and other schools were scored on were themselves broken down into different aspects for which ACI Boland assigned varying amounts of points.

For example, among the 10 aspects of Simonsen's site rating, including size, accessibility and topography, ACI Boland gave Simonsen less than half of the available points for one aspect — suitability for special instructional needs, such as outdoor learning.

Among the 18 aspects of Simonsen's rating for structural and mechanical features, ACI Boland gave half or less than half of available points for three aspects: having a structure free of friable asbestos and toxic materials; having a number and size of restrooms that meet requirements; and having an intercommunication system that allows dependable two-way communication between the office and instructional areas.

Friable refers to whether asbestos can easily crumble into dust.

Among the 20 aspects of building safety and security, less than half of the available points were given for eight aspects: student loading areas being away from vehicular traffic and pedestrian walkways; access streets having sufficient signals and signs to permit safe entry and exit from the school area; vehicular entrances and exits permitting safe traffic flow; the athletic field being properly located and free of hazard; heating units being located away from student-occupied areas; glass being properly located and protected with wire or safety material to prevent accidental injury of students; having an exit or a stairway that leads to an exit at the end of hallways; and having at least two independent exits from any point in the building.

Among the 23 aspects of educational adequacy, less than half of the available points were awarded for one aspect — adequate storage space for student and teachers' materials in specialized learning spaces.

A more specific list of concerns about Simonsen included: many entry points or exits were safety concerns; the age of the building; not having a way to isolate the academic areas of the building at night from the gym and auditorium; the location of the parking lot for parents to pick up students; the building being crowded; not having all restrooms being recently renovated; inadequate event parking; gym space issues; the building being cold or hot during seasonal weather transition times because of the building's heating and cooling system; not having elevator accessibility for rooms below the gym; needed painting; needed auditorium upgrades; and poor access to the first floor.

Many of those issues were still waiting to be addressed.

Bob Weber, then-director of facilities for JCPS, told the district's Board of Education last November that Simonsen is structurally sound — something Underwood also said last week after the tornado — but it would cost an estimated $5.8 million to $6 million and take up to three years to address the building's issues.

The board did not make any decisions about Simonsen at the time.

Weber said the estimated cost for the repairs and upgrades he listed would be approaching half of the value for which Simonsen was insured.

In April 2017, the board approved the replacement of a 27-year-old section of Simonsen's roof, at a cost of more than $180,000. Short-term fixes without any permanent guarantees could have cost about half as much, but the board said the roof replacement was a necessary investment because students would then be in the building for two more years and the building could then be sold.

The News Tribune asked Underwood by email if there have been any other major improvements to Simonsen since ACI Boland's 2013 report and before the May 22 tornado, but did not receive a response.

In terms of potential future uses for Simonsen, JCPS has not made any public announcements.

JCPS' Long Range Facility Planning Committee in 2014 looked at the district's needs on the elementary and secondary school level, and it recommended in all its secondary schools options that Simonsen be decommissioned.

JCPS Chief of Learning Brian Shindorf reported in a printed update to the board last November that there had been "numerous conversations about what to do with Simonsen and whether JCPS should expand our current alternative programming," but the district was not ready to make that decision and would be seeking input from other districts on their experiences with alternative programs.

Shindorf said last week he had reached out to four or five districts across the state, though he could not immediately name which districts without having to go back to look through his files.

He said he learned the majority of other districts he's talked with are leaning toward the same direction as JCPS — away from having a centralized alternative school and toward having alternative programming on site at other schools, where students can have access to the services they need but also access to regular classrooms.

"That's kind of the model we've been thinking about doing, as opposed to — I know there's been a lot of talk about creating an alternative school — another alternative school outside of JCAC. And we've talked about that, but lately, we've been talking more about let's create programming on site at the elementary, middle and high school levels, where kids actually receive the services on site, like we're doing at Moreau Heights (Elementary School)," Shindorf said.

Moreau Heights is where JCPS has a behavior support room.

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