The Fort Madison School District is again trying to gain public support for the construction of a new elementary school. The district's superintendent said the vote comes down to what type of learning environment should be offered to the youngest students in the community.
The special election on April 2 asks voters to authorize the district to borrow up to $30 million to build the new school next to the current middle school on the city’s west side. The money would also be used to address traffic needs near the two schools.
This will be the fourth try for the district. Voters have rejected three previous bond issues in the past 2 ½ years. The most recent vote was held last year and fell just a few dozen votes shy of reaching the 60% threshold for approval.
Superintendent Erin Slater said the district keeps trying to gain public support because it believes a new school is needed to replace Lincoln and Richardson Elementary Schools. She said academics within the district are going in the right direction with higher ACT scores and results that exceed state testing standards, but she said there are barriers to continued success.
“What the board has identified as a major barrier to continue that improvement is the state of the facilities for our elementary school students,” said Slater. “Lincoln Elementary is 80 years old and Richardson Elementary is more than 100 years old. The challenges of those facilities with safety, security, and instructional spaces really hinder what we need to be doing for kids. How kids need to learn, how they learn best, how we need to teach them and reach them.”
Slater said for example, Lincoln and Richardson do not have central air. She said a few classrooms have window air conditioning units to accommodate students with special needs, but the rest of the buildings go without. Slater said the district cannot afford to simply add central air because of other needs throughout the building.
“We would be liable to current building codes,” said Slater. “We have been grandfathered in to old building codes for those buildings so as soon as we started to do some renovation, all of those grandfathered codes would expire and the cost to upgrade the buildings to current codes would be extremely expensive.”
Slater said, for example, the district had to cancel or dismiss classes five times in the first three weeks of school this year due to excessive temperatures inside the two elementary schools.
“If it is anywhere between 90 degrees or above outside, our classrooms in our elementary building will reach 100-110 degrees,” said Slater. “That is unsafe for students to be in that kind of environment. If that happens, I have to dismiss the entire district.”
Slater said there is also not enough space available for teacher collaboration and not enough electrical outlets for current technology needs.
“We also have some students who are physically unable to access anything but the first floor, so we have had to move entire classrooms to different areas of the building because our students could not reach some of those learning areas,” said Slater.
Slater said the district has only conceptual designs for the new school. She believes it would be a one-story building to avoid accessibility issues and that it will have a single public entrance to increase security.
“We also know that there would be learning areas that are defined for grade areas to work together, for ease of movement between classes, for ease of movement for students,” said Slater. “We want a bright, colorful building, we want lots of natural light, we want it to be climate controlled, we want it to be safe and secure.”
BOND VOTE HISTORY
- Dec. 6, 2016 – Borrow $27 million – Yes 48.6%/No 51.4%
- June 27, 2017 – Borrow $27 million – Yes 55.8%/No 44.2%
- April 3, 2018 – Borrow $30 million* – Yes 59.3%/No 40.7%
- April 2, 2019 – Borrow $30 million – TBD
Slater said the district took a different approach this year compared to the previous three votes. She said based on feedback from residents, the decision was made to hire a new architectural firm to provide a fresh set of eyes and to hire a construction manager to provide an additional layer of expertise for the project.
“Having another look at the site, having another look at the building, and understanding what we need to do to educate our community and let them know what information is available,” said Slater. “What they realized was in the first three bond vote recommendations, there was not enough attention paid to accessing and leaving the site and so what was determined, we needed to add additional dollars to the project to make sure car traffic had adequate access to the site, making sure our middle school had adequate access to their site, keeping car traffic and bus traffic to the site.”
Slater said that is why the school board included traffic needs in the bond issue and removed the construction of new athletic fields. She said it was about prioritizing based on public input and expert advice.
The decision to bring in an outside expert to manage the construction side of the project has not gone as smoothly as the district might have hoped. The district last year hired Carl A. Nelson & Company out of Burlington to serve in that role.
About ten days ago, the Pen City Current reported that Tony Baxter, the President of Fort Madison-based construction company Baxter Construction, informed the community via letter that his family foundation would pull its financial support for local youth sports due to the school board’s decision to hire an outside firm as construction manager.
Slater said the school board and the school district are confident they made the right hire because the board went through an open, public process when proposals were reviewed for all to see. She said the board felt Carl A. Nelson & Company would provide the best opportunity for the district.
Slater said as a result of the last couple weeks, a misconception has surfaced regarding the role of Carl A. Nelson & Company as the construction manager.
“It will not build the school, it will not bid on any construction projects with the school,” said Slater. “It was hired just as a construction management firm. It is overseeing the process of the construction. Carl A. Nelson & Company will not bid on any pieces of the project. That will be open to any construction company that wishes to apply and respond to the request for proposals once the building is designed.”
Beyond changing the language of the ballot question, the financial cost to local property owners has also changed significantly since last year.
Slater said the previous bond issues would have required the owner of a home assessed at $100,000 to pay $40-$50 more per year in property taxes. She said that number has shrunk to roughly $8.50 with this 4th vote.
She said it’s due to the district’s taxable valuation increasing.
“The Iowa Fertilizer Company plant, the Dakota Access Crude Oil Pipeline, the increased assessment of homes in Lee County are all changes that have put the district in a more positive financial position to be able to allow us to decrease the tax impact for the bond referendum,” said Slater.
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