Wednesday morning, a few concerned parents took an opportunity to ask Superintendent Deb Hamm a few questions about the future of Walton Rural Life Elementary. The answers they were able to get were, in some ways, unclear.
However, what was learned was the charter school program — centered on agriculture and project based learning — will continue. What was unclear Wednesday is if it will continue in Walton or at another location.
“It is time to make a commitment to that program,” Hamm said during a “Railer Roundtable” at Druber's Daylight Donuts in downtown Newton. “The difficulty is to determine where that program should be.”
Hamm said the desire is to keep the project based learning and agricultural focus of the school, regardless of where the school might be. It is unclear when a decision about facilities, or when to move on a bond issue, may be made.
The current Walton elementary was born out of a charter school grant — state and federal funding designated for schools to do something different. Teachers, building administrators and parents first moved forward with a charter grant about 10 years ago to create a school that focused on project based learning and focused on agriculture.
Enrollment increased at the school, and two different projects came along to help as the enrollment grew. A metal building was added to the school grounds with classrooms within. Three years ago the district added temporary classrooms to the campus.
The current charter grant is expiring. The school's charter grant is in the process of being written. If awarded, that grant would last five years.
The district has since undergone strategic and comprehensive planning. During that planning process, facilities were part of the discussion — and renovations for Newton High School came out of those community discussions as the most important building concern. Walton was identified as the second most important concern.
Hamm said on Wednesday she has already had conversations with city officials to discuss zoning issues should the district choose to move the Walton animals and other agricultural components to within the city limits of Newton.
“Any building we build will be designed with that in mind,” Hamm said. “Whether that be renovation or Walton. The renovation would be designed around the idea and still letting it be flexible so if 10 years from now that it was time for a change, they would be able to do that.”
The board of education is currently looking at five different options for facilities moving forward — and the top focus of all of those options includes an estimated $37 million in renovations to Newton High School.
At this time no final decisions have been made. The board is expected to discuss a timeline for decision making, possibly even when the district would pursue a bond issue, at a Feb. 13 meeting at McKinley Adminstrative Center, 308 E. First.
Four of the five options include changes for Walton. One of the proposals includes building a new kindergarten through eighth grade school, and doing that in Walton.
“That was the dream at Walton,” Hamm said. “There are some really interesting advantages to that in that students can move on from their eighth grade year focusing on agriculture throughout and move right into the high school where they can continue their studies.”
However, to do so the district would have to purchase land — the current Walton campus is 4.3 acres. For a K-8 facility, it is estimated the campus would need to be housed on 10 to 15 acres.
Two of the options in front of the board, with estimated costs of $60 million and $62 million include moving Walton to a different location. Dubbed “option 2,” the district would add on to Santa Fe 5/6 Center and Chisholm Middle School while constructing a new, $18 million kindergarten through fourth grade center that would house three sections at each grade level. Option 3 on the list includes a $20 million building for a new four section kindergarten through fifth grade school and converting both Santa Fe and Chisholm to sixth through eighth grade schools. Other elementary schools in the district would create fifth grade classrooms as well.
Under option four, a $55 million option, $15.6 million would be spent to renovate and expand the current Walton school, keeping it as a kindergarten through fourth grade school. Option five does nothing at the elementary school level under this bond issue, instead spending $37 million to renovate Newton High School and revisiting elementary schools at a later time.
“Walton was identified as the elementary school that needs the most attention,” Hamm said. “The high school was the community's number one concert, Walton was number two.”