In 2017, after voters in the Jefferson City School District approved paying for a new high school, Capital City High School, and making repairs and upgrades to Jefferson City High School, Superintendent Larry Linthacum said they would eventually be back asking voters to help address space issues with grades K-8.
That time has come and district officials are asking for patron’s thoughts on the district’s proposal.
The first of two town hall meetings took place Wednesday night at West Elementary.
While he said getting new facilities is not the “silver bullet” to solving their problems, Linthacum said the district’s plan to add fifth- and sixth-grade centers is the best they have to offer.
A facility focus group formed by Linthacum in April has suggested adding two buildings on district-owned land near Thomas Jefferson and Lewis and Clark middle schools. The school at Lewis and Clark would be built near East McCarty Street, north of where Lewis and Clark sits. The school at Thomas Jefferson would be built on land behind that school with roads put in to access it off of Fairgrounds Road.
At Wednesday’s meeting, district officials showed basic plans for the buildings which called for them to each have two floors with 20 classrooms. They could each serve 800 students. The fifth and sixth grades right now each have 720 students. The 140,000-square-foot facilities would cost $65 million for both.
Linthacum said enrollment was up by 59 students in the district this year and they expected growth to stay at about that rate for the immediate future. However, the space needs are also due to more programs that need to be offered such as those addressing mental health of students.
In his presentation, Linthacum said the facility focus group looked at other options such as building a 12th and 13th elementary school as well as a third middle school. However, the elementary school option would also mean the district would have to redo boundary lines for all schools in the district, something that came about when Capital City was built which he said many people didn’t want to go through again. Linthacum also said the elementary and middle school plans would cause the district to raise the tax rates and the focus group didn’t want that.
District officials said the focus group found the fifth- and sixth-grade centers would increase space in the elementary and middle school buildings, allow the district to expand preschool in the future and come at a no-tax increase.
The option would move about 80 students from the district’s 11 elementary schools and 400 students from the two middle schools, clearing out about four classrooms per elementary building and 15 per middle school, according to the committee’s report.
Linthacum pointed out the district had reached out to 22 school districts in the state with fifth- and sixth-grade centers which included Nixa, Springfield and Reeds Spring. One of the bigger pros these districts found for having the centers was that they allowed for students to have a “softer transition” between the two grades, noting students have one room and one teacher in fifth grade, but in sixth they have multiple rooms and teachers.
“Even if voters would not approve this, the transition issue needs to be addressed in this district,” Linthacum said.
The school board is scheduled to review formal ballot language at their regular meeting Monday to put a no-tax increase option for the facilities on the April ballot. If voters approve the measure, the schools could open in fall 2022.
District officials noted what they are proposing would be like what voters approved in April 2007 to build Pioneer Trail Elementary in Apache Flats. At that time, district patrons approved a bond issue extending the district’s debt load. However, district finances could support the additional debt with the current revenue stream and no tax increase.
After the presentation, those in attendance broke out into small groups to discuss the pros and cons of the proposed plan.
One of the pros the groups said they saw for this plan was, if voters approved, it would allow students to stay together throughout the rest of their time in school with the same class they came into the center with which would lessen the impact of future building transitions.
“One thing our group wanted to see addressed is recess because right now in the current elementary buildings, recess gets cut a lot,” said Amy Schwartz, whose children attend school in the district. “We also are concerned that the plan shows space to add only 80 more students in each building. Will we be back in another seven to 10 years and needing to find more space again?
“We’d also like to see student/teacher ratios addressed because it varies widely right now in elementary,” Schwartz added. “At West School, it’s one teacher for 16-18 students, but at Belair it’s one for 25 students. Our group also thought re-drawing boundary lines wasn’t a bad thing. Drawing boundaries that make more sense for some of the outlying areas and doing it throughout the district is not necessarily a con and we think you should look into that.”
Other meeting attendees expressed concerns the district needed to give more time to presenting the plan to patrons before trying to take it to a vote.
“You need to have a long-range facilities plan and I have yet to see it,” former school board member Jackie Coleman said. “The focus group meetings should have been open discussions, like we had when we got the middle school’s built in the 1990s. That has to happen before you put something on the ballot because, at the end of the day, it’s our tax dollars that are getting you here.”
The second town hall meeting will be 6-8 p.m. tonight at East Elementary School, 1229 E. McCarty St.