Given a combination of a factors — not least of which being the current bond issue pursued — the Newton Board of Education found itself tackling a contentious topic at a special meeting Monday night.
While not outlined as a current priority in work sessions involving the school board and community vision team, the future of Walton Rural Life Center has a become a pressing concern in recent weeks. At the last work session, the question was raised about how the Walton school fits into the district plans long-term regarding the board's goal to reduce class sizes — and whether a new school building would better facilitate that.
"I think it's time that the board make a decision about that facility and what the division of our facilities look like," said board member Angela Becker.
"We haven't identified it as a priority for the community vision team," said board member Toby Tyner, "but it's a priority that's on the immediate horizon."
Recently, issues were also discovered with the modular classroom space (regarding air quality and water pooling under the facility due to grading problems) at Walton that need to be addressed — facilitating a frank discussion on what that means for the school in the short-term and beyond.
Minimum work (residing, repainting, regrading, replacing bathroom flooring, etc.) can be be done to continue use of the modular classrooms through this school year, Superintendent Deb Hamm noted, but she also stated that the 2019-2020 school year cannot start with students in that space in its current condition. Upgrades could range between $200,000 to $2,000,000, meaning Walton's future had to be brought into the bigger picture bond discussion.
Citizens like John Esau and Kate Flavin came forward with additional concerns about the current conditions at Walton and what it would take for the board to commit to long-term investments at the school.
"Why not just give our school, our students, the resources that they need to succeed," Flavin asked.
Particularly, the issue of equitability across district schools (a goal of the board) got brought up while discussing the Walton school — with the library becoming a focal point. Compared to Northridge, a school with a similar enrollment, Hamm pointed out that Walton has far less square footage for such facilities and — therefore — less resources available per student (26.1 books per student compared to 53.1 books per student at Northridge).
Classroom space outright was another big talking point, especially as it pertains to the board's goal of reducing class sizes at some point. To do so would require about 20 rooms per building. Four of the elementary schools have at least 18 rooms, while Walton has just 12.
Options presented to the board on Monday night namely addressed keeping Walton at the status quo for the time being, with some additional funds being invested to address the modular issues, or eliminating the current issues by transitioning Walton to a one-section school as soon as the 2019-2020 academic year — something that could not be considered in the eyes of board member Jennifer Budde.
"I have been vocal in the past and I will continue to be vocal that a one-section is not an adequate solution. It's just not," Budde said.
Taking the one-section option off the table left the school board to look at simply addressing the immediate short-term fixes only or doing so while keeping an eye on the future and adding a separate bond question about building either a K-4 or K-6 building on the south side of Newton.
Questions persisted on the palatability of the total bond price tag if a new elementary school were pursued, given the number of factors in play with the other bond issue being discussed. Bond adviser and vice president of George K. Baum and Company Steve Shogren did note a ballot item could be worded in such a way that would only allow for the second bond on a new elementary building if the first bond (for high school renovations, safety and security upgrades, etc.) were to pass.
Having options was appealing to the board and, as such, the question was raised on what it would take to bring Walton up to a fully functional two-section facility versus building a brand new elementary, with the former estimated at $10 million and the latter around $16 million.
Board members voiced strong support for the programs in place at Walton and continuing those, but there were concerns about the feasibility at the current location.
"There's been too much programming and too many positions in our district that have been let go that we've not been able to reinstate," said board vice president Carol Sue Stayrook Hobbs.
"I'm very supportive of the program," said board member Steve Richards. "The location of Walton in the overall context does not represent a long-term solution."
Ultimately, the Newton BOE voted 6-1 (with Budde voting against) to move forward with the option to maintain Walton at the status quo while pursuing a new elementary building bond as a second ballot item when the board proceeds with a special bond election.