by Valerie Verkamp
Landmark assistant editor
The Park Hill School District adopted a long-range facility plan that will subsequently modify the district's current middle school configuration by eliminating the popular sixth grade center.
On Thursday, the school board narrowly approved a long-range facility plan that they say will provide stability to the district as enrollment continues to grow.
Superintendent Dr. Scott Springston formally recommended the board adopt the long range facility plan based upon feedback the district received during several open houses hosted by district officials, as well as the response from an online portal.
The long range facility plan proposes the construction of two new elementary schools, which would allow the district to maintain a kindergarten through fifth grade configuration. The concept also provides a template for the future construction of a fourth middle school, which calls for the reorganization of the district's middle school configuration to a sixth through eighth grade arrangement.
At the high school level, the concept provides the framework for a brand new center where special, innovative education programs will be offered.
The price tag is roughly $90 million.
During open discussion, it was crystal clear the school board was split about the decision.
School board members Janice Bolin and Allison Wurst aggressively debated with Dr. Springston's recommendation to eliminate the sixth grade center. Wurst made an assertion that the district misled the public and falsely portrayed the grading criteria presented to the public.
A common thread in their argument dealt with the concern of “overbuilding” that could result in underutilized space. Bolin asserted to the fact that the district's graded criteria diagram, which was an essential mechanism used in the decision-making process, was not only subjective but misrepresented the long term facility plan in a more favorable light.
Wurst recalled being told in a recent meeting among board members that the long term facility plan being proposed “would take 10, 15, maybe 20 years to have enrollment get to the point where all four buildings would need to house all 750 kids.”
Wurst made the assertion the district was jumping the gun. “What strikes me about the conversation—I don't know how to say this without being blunt—really the decision tonight is do we do away with the sixth grade center. And the commitment this board is making is that this is the path we are going to go down and how it unfolds will be dependent upon enrollment and how it all shakes out,” said Wurst.
“I don't feel like that is how we presented this (to the public),” said Wurst.
Board member Todd Fane disagreed with Wurst's assertion that the district wasn't completely forthright with the fact that there was the very real and distinct possibility that the sixth grade center will be eliminated.
“Did we introduce that plan as clearly to our public in our options? I think it was apparent in the three options that were presented,” responded Fane.
Dr. Springston acknowledged how the single criteria of creating an 'appropriate area for learning' could be graded differently. He said he isn't against amending the graded criteria diagram, but indicated even with that single alteration the presented long range facility plan would still be the best option.
Dr. Paul Kelly, assistant superintendent for business and technology, said there is always an inherent risk that the future enrollment growth might change. It will be the responsibility of future boards to ultimately determine when to build and how much to build, he said.
“It will be incumbent upon future boards and future communities to sort of specify how much certainty do we want, because certainty may result in some pain. We don't want mobile units either and we don't want to be constantly adding and adding square footage to our existing (structures). We don't want maybe our special needs on wheels. We don't want art-on-a-cart, and we want music in a music room,” said Dr. Kelly.
Wurst said the recommended long term facility plan commits the district to the construction of a middle school to house 750 students.
“I can't vote for that, because I can't in good conscience vote for building a building that may take us years to fill and taxpayers' dollars for a building that may sit empty,” said Wurst.
Bolin said she would also vote against the district's proposed long term facility plan because it would directly result in the elimination of a sixth grade center.
“I have been inundated with people talking about how special Plaza is, the phenomenal experience their kids had there, and I have seen kids talk about it. I can't honestly believe the staff at Plaza is better than the other two middle schools, because we have great staff in every building. I just think it is a unique age and I don't think in good conscience what is best for our kids is to eliminate a building that has worked so well.”
Wurst and Bolin's concerns relayed Thursday are apparently shared by a number of parents and students in the community, who are also unhappy to hear that down the road Plaza Middle School will no longer exclusively serve sixth graders.
“Some may support that we no longer provide a sixth grade transition year to middle school for our community,” wrote a commenter identified as Christy W. at engageparkhill.mindmixer.com. “I believe that this transition is needed now more than ever with the implementation of technology throughout our district. Sixth grade tends to be a very popular year to get a phone and to start using social media. In addition, the physical growth development that occurs during the sixth grade year should also be considered. Again, a sixth grade center provides for a safer place to go through the experience of your body changing and the middle school environment.”
Other parents are quick to point out the obvious advantage of eliminating a sixth grade center, which will reduce the number of times students will transition to a new school. Switching schools less would allow more time for peer relationships to develop and foster a stronger sense of belonging among the community of learners, parents contend.
Another key advantage of the long range facility plan is that the model will allow sixth graders to participate in specialized middle school programs with upper classmen, including band and choir.
Dr. Springston pointed out the new middle school configuration will lessen the burden on support services, including transportation services. The school board received a single complete bid for transportation services for the next school year.
The transportation proposal from First Student resulted in 17 percent increase in costs per route. The awarded bid also reflects an additional 2.5% increase in consecutive years. During the 2014-2015 school year, the district will pay approximately $5,793,692 for bus services.
Matt Pepper, treasurer of the school board, pointed out that if the board adopted a roadmap that protected the sixth grade center, then the district would eventually be forced to construct a new sixth grade facility to accommodate future enrollment.
“A sixth grade center alone is going to be more expensive than any other middle school,” said Pepper.
The estimate cost of a sixth grade center exceeds the cost of a more traditional middle school by an estimated $10 million, according to statistics released by the district.
Wurst said the costs are “nebulous” at this point. “If we are truly going to hang our hats on dollars, then I don't think we have a lot to hang there,” replied Wurst. “Until we get true bids and until it is truly that construction season, and that construction climate” the costs are not precise.
On a 4-2 vote, the school board adopted a plan where 12 elementary schools will feed into four middle school buildings with a sixth through eighth grade configuration.
Additionally, the plan calls for the construction of a high school level center where the district says special, innovative educational programs will be offered.
Board members Todd Fane, Matt Pepper, Bart Klein, and Boon Lee voted in favor. Bolin and Wurst were opposed. Susan Newburger, president of the school board, was absent and did not cast a vote.
“I feel very good about the process and the outcome, and how it will best represent our district,” said Dr. Springston.