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Facilities getting boost thanks to power plant

by PJ Rooks
Landmark reporter

Here's a neat magic trick guaranteed, if you dare, to astound your friends and amaze your colleagues: how to turn raw electricity into a playground, a fine arts theater, a cafeteria or a tornado shelter.

They don't teach this kind of stuff in school--unless you happen to be a student in the West Platte School District.

As is always the case with magic, though, there's a simple secret at work behind the scenes and at West Platte, it has been the construction of the Iatan II power plant in Weston. Superintendent Kyle Stephenson said the project has generated about $16 million so far in welcomed revenue that the district has been using to fund all kinds of improvement projects.

Currently working on stage two of a four-phase remodeling and upgrading project, the district just last month completed construction on a new $2.2 million kitchen. Centrally located to eventually serve all three of the schools, the kitchen has brand new equipment throughout and the walk-in coolers and freezers, which used to be outside, are now indoors. While for now the cooks still have to wheel food from the kitchen, through the hall and down the elevator to serve the high school students in a second, more distant cafeteria, the new kitchen is laid out so that at some future point, a new cafeteria for the high schoolers can be added behind an adjoining wall.

Over summer vacation, the district also upgraded all the appliances in the family and consumer sciences room, replacing refrigerators, microwaves, washers and dryers for less than $5,000 and redistributing the older appliances to various other work and break rooms throughout the schools.

Those summer projects were part of Phase 2. Phase 1, completed just two days before the start of the 2009 school year, brought the district new offices for the high school and the elementary school, a new workroom for the elementary school teachers, a new elementary playground and parking and new roof units for both the elementary and the high school heating and air conditioning.

Funding the construction entirely out of newly augmented cash balances, Stephenson said that the district so far has earmarked about $14 million for building pieces, hopes to save about nine million and has also paid off about $1.25 million in bonds early.

Right now, the big project at West Platte is construction of a new gym. The gym will replace the old one, which was built in the 1930s, and is also being built to Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) standards to serve as a community shelter. Stephenson said the $4.2 million gym will be able to withstand winds of up to 275 miles per hour and is also equipped with its own generator, a concrete roof and ultra-sturdy windows and could house community members from other catastrophic events--a pandemic, for example.

“It's a concrete box,” Stephenson explained.

Stephenson said the district has applied to FEMA for a grant to help fund the project and is still hopeful that the grant will be approved.

With completion slated for spring 2011, Stephenson said once the new gym is completed, the next project--construction of the $2.75 million fine arts theater--can begin.

“It's not like we're building a new school on a new site and you can built it and then occupy it. We have to use the facilities while we're building these pieces,” said Stephenson. “Plus it doesn't hurt to go a little bit slow. We're in no rush. We're not under the gun to bring it in on a certain deadline, which is kind of nice.”

Primarily planned for musical programs and plays, the new, 400-seat theater will feature first-rate lighting and technology and, said David Peerbolte of Peerbolte Creative, a Warrensburg-based theatrical consultation and design firm, will be equipped with a flexible technical infrastructure that will lend itself well to upgrades down the road.

The West Platte School Board has identified about $1.5 million in other renovation needs. The industrial arts shop, for example, needs new windows, sinks, ventilation, electrical, storage and a second door for safety access, all of which, Stephenson said, will involve gutting the existing space.

“It's not been redone for I don't know how many years,” said Stephenson. New football locker rooms and facility-wide roofs are also on the list of future renovations.

These improvements will be put out for bids in December, said Stephenson, and each planned improvement will only commence when the one before it is completed. A self-identified fiscal conservative, Stephenson said that the district is progressing carefully to ensure that the money is already in the bank before each new project begins.

“We're doing it out of our cash balances and you want to make sure you have the money there before you commit to something like that,” said Stephenson. “People like to get paid. I don't blame them,” he added.

Administrators are also minding a tough lesson learned from a similar financial windfall in 1976, he said, in which the district implemented many improvements but ended up broke and had to lay off nine or ten teachers.

“That was after Iatan I,” said Stephenson. “ I'm not saying they spent the money frivolously, I just know that when the project was done, two years later they were laying off teachers and staff.”

The careful progress is going well though, said Stephenson, pointing out that for the 2010/2011 school year, the district neither added nor cut programs.

“We were well aware of what's going on out there,” said Stephenson of the current economy.

“After this year, we won't have the additional revenue from the power plant so we'll go back to being poor,” he quipped.

“We are fortunate and I wish every school was in the position we are.”