Multimedia Journalist

A growing need – JC Schools committee studying overcrowding in school district finds similar issues, but reaches vastly different conclusions from 2014 community report

In the span of six years, the Jefferson City School District has commissioned two groups to explore building needs to educate future generations of schoolchildren.

While there were some similarities between the findings of the two groups, they came to vastly different conclusions.

In 2013-14 and 2019, community members, teachers and staff were pulled together to assess space considerations in existing school buildings, as well as future needs for the district.

After a mega-high school plan was rejected at the polls by more than 64 percent majority in April 2013, the JC Schools Board of Education formed a 37-member Long-Range Facilities Planning Committee to conduct facility assessments and recommend plans to address K-12 space needs for the next 20 years.

The co-chair of that panel was Lorelei Schwartz, who is currently the JC Schools board president.

The committee, which met for 18 months, recommended:

• Building a second elementary school on the east side of Jefferson City for an estimated $13.7 million.

• Adding 10 classrooms and renovating Callaway Hills Elementary for an estimated $5.5 million.

• Making additions and renovations to Jefferson City High School for an estimated $40 million.

• Building a second high school for an estimated $76.4 million.

Future needs identified by the committee to address overcrowding included:

• Adding a middle school in Callaway County in 2019 for an estimated $34.4 million.

• Adding an elementary school on the west side of Jefferson City for an estimated $19.3 million.

• Renovating Lewis and Clark and Thomas Jefferson middle schools for an estimated $13 million.

• Expanding the two high schools by 2034 for an estimated $19.8 million.

In the ensuing years, the district pursued some of the suggestions from the 2013-14 long-range plan in an effort to address space needs. Among those were $3.5 million in renovations at East Elementary School in 2015 and redrawing the attendance boundary lines in 2017 for East, Moreau Heights and Thorpe Gordon elementary schools, which created smaller classroom sizes at East.

Today, East is the second-least populated elementary school in the district, according to a 2019 study by ACI Boland. Moreau Heights and Thorpe Gordon have overcrowded classrooms and trailers on-site for support services.

In an effort to address overcrowding at Jefferson City High School, the school board asked voters to approve a $130 million bond issue and levy increase in 2017. The bond issue was to fund the renovation of the existing high school and build a new high school off Missouri 179; the operating levy increase was to fund the added costs of running both schools. Voters approved both propositions in April 2017 by a vote of 60.4 percent.

Capital City High School opened in August with its initial phase of construction — 40 classrooms, a kitchen, commons, administrative offices, a practice field and a parking lot. CCHS construction is expected to be completed this month.

JCHS renovations included upgraded classrooms, gym, cafeteria, kitchen, commons and administrative offices and a new connection between the high school and Nichols Career Center. Final classroom renovations are expected to be completed this month.

But the district is still looking at ways to address its space issues. Eight of the 11 elementary schools and both middle schools are over capacity, according to the 2019 ACI study.

While the 2013-14 long-range planning committee invested a lot of time and effort in drafting the plan, those needs are not consistent with where the district is now, Schwartz said recently.

“I felt like we had a pretty good plan,” she said. “But it was always known that it was pretty fluid, that things were going to change along the way (and) that would change the plan. We were using the information that we had in (2013-14) to make that plan. Things have already changed here in 2019, just five years later.”

For instance, adding a new elementary school would require the district to redraw boundary lines again, which causes frustration among parents who purchase homes in certain areas, Schwartz said.

Also, the district did not move forward with adding a middle school in Callaway County because it would not address a bigger issue, she said.

“Building a middle school at Callaway Hills isn’t going to move the needle enough (and) enough kids out of each middle school to really create the kind of space that we need,” Schwartz said.

In an effort to address its space needs in 2019, the district took another look at overcrowding. Superintendent Larry Linthacum formed a 21-member facilities focus group to review K-8 space needs.

The 2019 committee, which met for nine months, explored four options to address space needs. They were:

• Adding a 12th or 13th elementary school would mean one could be added on the east side of town and another on the west side, with a capacity of 500 students each, according to the committee notes. The operating cost of adding one elementary would be more than $2 million, officials have said. Other costs include $1.75 million in salaries, $180,00 in utilities, $120,000 for additional buses and $117,600 for tax revenue.

• Adding a middle school would solve middle school space needs but not elementary space needs, according to the committee’s report. The district has not done a detailed analysis of the cost of operation; however, it would come at a 12-cents-per-building tax increase, officials said.

• Constructing fifth-and sixthgrade centers on district-owned property near Thomas Jefferson and Lewis and Clark middle schools at an estimated $70 million, not including administration, support staff, some teachers, utility cost and building access roads to both buildings.

• Adding two kindergarten through first-grade centers would offer the district the same solution as the fifth-and sixth-grade centers. With no tax increase, the district could expand preschool and create space in the elementary and middle school buildings.

In December, the consensus among the committee members was the best solution was adding the two fifth-and sixth-grade buildings, JC Schools Chief Financial and Operations Officer Jason Hoffman previously said.

The buildings would offer the promise of addressing space needs for kindergarteners, elementary school students and middle school students, according to a report of findings from the group.

As part of the committee’s exploration of fifth-and sixthgrade centers, JC Schools staff interviewed 11 of the 21 Missouri school districts with intermediate centers. Chief of Learning Brian Shindorf and his staff compiled those responses into an executive summary for the focus group.

According to the report, a majority of the 11 districts’ buildings have been in place for over 10 years with an average student population of 525.

Educators from the 11 districts noted the intermediate centers created a slower transition from elementary school to middle school and removed the influence of seventh-and eighth-grade students on younger students, according to the report.

When facing space needs and building a larger high school, the Camdenton R-3 School District transitioned a former fourth-through sixth-grade building into Oak Ridge Intermediate, a school for fifth-and sixth-graders, about 14 years ago, Superintendent Tim Hadfield said.

The district’s elementary and middle school buildings are split into five buildings: preschool through second grade, third and fourth grade, kindergarten through fourth grade, fifth and sixth grade, and seventh and eighth grade.

Moving the students around opened up space in the buildings, Hadfield said.

“The positive was we had more space to offer some additional programming for our students that we might not have had otherwise,” Hadfield said.

The Oak Ridge Intermediate model is similar to what the JC Schools facility focus group has discussed in that it would create a soft transition from elementary to middle school.

Fifth-grade students have one teacher for English language arts and social studies and another for math and science. In sixth grade, students are introduced to the team method, switching between three or four classrooms.

“That way, when they get to middle school, they are used to switching,” Oak Ridge Principal Bob Currier said.

The two-year time frame limits the amount of time staff and faculty have to build relationships with students in intermediate and middle school, he said.

“We start to make headway with them relationally and social-emotional type learning, and then we lose them,” Currier said.

Some schools interviewed by JC Schools staff mentioned having lower behavior incidents and increases in test scores and Annual Performance Reviews — how the state collects data on academic achievement, subgroup achievement, college and career readiness, attendance and graduation rate.

Those responses were limited, Shindorf said.

“In terms of reporting lower behavior incidents and an increased APR, that was only a limited number of schools,” Shindorf said. “So we did not say that it was a significant number, but some did report that.”

In January, the JC Schools school board is expected to place a no-tax increase bond issue on the April 7 ballot to fund construction of two fifth-and sixth-grade centers.

Under a no-tax increase plan, the district would extend the length of the 2017 bonds by public vote without increasing the tax rate to fund any construction, said Ryan Burns, director of communications for the district. If the district were to relocate current fifth-and sixth-grade staff, officials expect the district would be able to absorb the minimal differences in operating costs, she said.

The other options explored by the 2019 facility focus group are not the most financially responsible, said Steve Bruce, a current school board member who was a member of the 2013-14 committee.

The fifth-and sixth-grade centers are the most logical extension of the 2013-14 plan, Bruce said.

“This was a logical extension of saying, “We have this 20-year plan in place, we’ve been able to address a couple of these needs at the elementary level by doing some things that the committee really didn’t take up,” he said.

“We made recommendations (in 2013-14), but we were also laying the groundwork for an effective flexible plan that the district would use and pursue,” Bruce said. “To me, the 5-6 buildings are just an extension of that.”

Ashley French, a member of the 2019 committee, agrees.

“I feel like the fifth-, sixthgrade centers are an elegant solution to address a wide swath of crowding problems in JCSD, both in the middle schools and elementary schools,” French said earlier this month. “Having it be a no-tax-increase bond issue, it’s not very often that we have the opportunity to do something as dramatic as reduce overcrowding without a tax increase, and I think we should embrace this solution.”

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