‘We need people to tell us what they want,’ school district says
By RACHEL COLEMAN
• Leader & Times
Despite single-digit temperatures, a group of more than 20 people turned out for the first of four community meetings sponsored by USD 480 Monday night at the Seward County Ag Building. The two-hour session offered Liberal residents a chance to review five possible options for a school bond issue, and give feedback about what they want — and how much they’d be willing to pay.
“There’s not a perfect solution for everything you face,” said DLR consultant Brad Kiehl. “We can get you pretty close, but it comes with a price tag.”
Working with information gathered in two previous series of community meetings, the architecture and engineering firm crafted scenarios based on the priorities expressed by the people of Liberal. These ranged in price from $113 million to $160 million. State of Kansas funding will pick up half the cost of whatever plan is approved. The potential cost to local property owners could range from $6.95 per month to $16 per month in property taxes for a $100,000 home, depending on which plan is approved. Furthermore, the property tax cost depends on the passage of a sales tax initiative. It would be higher if voters failed to approve the half-cent sales tax that will appear on the ballot in a special election next April.
What would the district get for the money? The meeting offered an array of possibilities: two new middle schools, with Liberal High School annexing the current buildings at West Middle School to house a ninth-grade center; or a totally new high school near the community college, with both middle schools combining at the current site of LHS; or a newly constructed middle school in a northwest location, with significant renovations to South Middle School, and LHS continuing “as is,” with use of the current WMS facility; or two other approaches to the district’s challenges.
While facilities for the district’s oldest students claimed a large part of the discussion, significant changes were presented for the lower grades, starting with preschool and kindergarten. The district hopes to hear a clear verdict from citizens about the addition of more preschool services, and all-day kindergarten. If approved, the plan would move all preschool classes to two buildings currently being used as elementary schools — Lincoln and Southlawn. At the same time, intermediate schools adjacent to both locations would become full-fledged elementaries.
In fact, no matter what plan is approved, it is clear that elementary and intermediate schools will shuffle and reconfigure as part of the district’s growth. The portable classrooms scattered throughout the district “would go away forever,” said Kiehl, noting that every person interviewed in the meetings had shared this goal. The district’s oldest school buildings, Garfield, McKinley and McDermott, would be repurposed for use as service buildings. Some new elementary school construction would be needed as well.
Other possible changes in the district included turning what is now Washington Elementary School, located on Kansas Avenue and near the business district, into an adult learning center in conjunction with Seward County Community College’s Colvin Learning Center. Another option: if voters want to combine middle schools, South Middle School’s campus could be transformed into a community recreation center.
“These are just ideas,” noted DLR planner Nicole Lopez. Throughout the meeting process, she said, consultants heard voters express concern about buildings sitting empty. The suggestions for putting outdated buildings to another use “aren’t part of the bond issue, but it’s something we want to be talking about, because it’s important to people” to know what would happen to the abandoned buildings, she said.
Participants at the Monday meeting were cautiously optimistic about various aspects of the plans. Parent Cheryl Collins said she is so concerned about overcrowding in the district that she’s ready to vote for almost any plan presented, even if the details are not her first choice. Local businessman and banker Mark Schepers agreed that not all plans are equally appealing to him personally, but he leaned toward the ones that seemed most likely to get voter approval — and that meant the least costly proposals.
“You’ve got to select a plan that puts you in the best position to sway the naysayers,” he said. For many voters, he observed, a plan that abandons the fewest facilities currently in use might be the most appealing.
However, many people in attendance voiced concern that taking a low-cost “Band-Aid” approach would only push the same problems into the future.
“No matter what option you choose, in 10 or 15 years we’re going to be back in this situation,” Schepers said.
Kiehl cautioned that a “huge plan that addresses all the needs at once requires a huge effort from the entire community.” If that doesn’t gel, he said, “we’ll be sitting here a year from now, looking at the same problems.”
Longtime Liberal resident Charlie Marcellus said the long view is necessary.
“I’ve been here all my life, and I’m one of the old guys who gripe,” he said. “I don’t buy things I can’t pay for, and that’s one of the things that concerns me about these plans.” If the economy took a turn for the worse, or Liberal’s water supply dwindled and caused a drop in industry and population, Marcellus said, “we’d still be stuck paying these bills.”
Even so, he added, with a granddaughter who teaches in the district, and other family members involved in education throughout the region, he understands the need for progress.
Another old-timer, Dr. Ray Allen, attended the meeting and observed that all the consensus-gathering is time-consuming and, he feared, counterproductive.
“The school board needs to take leadership and present a plan,” he said. “This is a lot of delegating authority.”
Director of auxiliary services Robert Burkey said the community meetings are a necessary part of the process, in order to gain support for a bond issue.
“Tell your buddies at the coffee shop to come on out,” he told Marcellus. “We need to hear from people.”
More meetings are planned for tonight, Wednesday night and Thursday noon.
Local citizens have been clear about their wishes for elementary facilities, said DLR representatives. At this point, the most likely plan for the bond issue would be to make use of three existing buildings for K-5 classes: Cottonwood, Sunflower and MacArthur (with renovations to the last). Two new elementary schools would be built on the east side of Liberal. Garfield, McDermott, McKinley and Washington would be repurposed. Sixth-graders would move to middle school facilities.