Newton school board and community vision team members had a lot to work through at a special session this week, diving into a decision-making process to define the scope of a school bond projected to be taken to a vote next spring.
Keeping the top five priorities — remodeling Newton High School, safety and security upgrades, resolving middle school overcrowding, reducing the overall total of the bond and performing deferred maintenance — in mind, the entities worked to define what the bond would officially entail.
While the process got off to a shaky start simply defining what constituted a consensus for inclusion, the board and vision team eventually came to an agreement to move forward with plans to remodel the high school and address safety and security upgrades at Chisholm Middle School. Based on the consensus requirements, options to tackle safety and security upgrades at the high school (including a 6,000 square foot storm shelter, location undecided) and elementary schools, along with the addition of classroom space at Santa Fe 5/6 Center, were not included.
On second vote, however, the security elements at the elementary schools were included — what board member Jennifer Budde called the "easiest piece to sell in the whole bond."
Those initial decisions left the groups looking at a bond with a total estimated cost of $37.58 million after addressing the core priorities. At that point, the question was posed if that was considered to be the max scope for the bond — and the board and vision team members were in overwhelming consensus to keep going.
Moving into the "priorities plus," as DLR Group architect Kevin Greischar designated them, the board and vision team members also showed support for performing deferred maintenance at Chisholm Middle School and the elementary buildings, expanding the high school by adding a new science wing and establishing a new auxiliary gym (to also serve as a storm shelter) — while passing on expansion of the performing arts center and storm shelter access at Brooks Trade Center.
Storm shelter space/location at the high school was where there seemed to be the most dissenting opinion during the session. Questions were brought up about having adequate space with a 6,000 square foot shelter — part of the initial option with the safety and security upgrades at NHS — while the idea was also raised to look at doing the 6,000 square foot and Brooks Trade Center shelters together at a lower total cost than the auxiliary gym plans.
"Last bond, I guess I was in the 'do we really need another gym' camp and I guess I'm still there," said board member Toby Tyner.
Concerns were also raised about the lack of measures addressing the fine arts department and Brooks Trade Center, where work was deferred during the last bond issue.
Simply remodeling the current performing arts area does not get to the heart of the issue in the mind of vision team member and middle school orchestra teacher Joey Meninga.
"The biggest concern currently is expansion of the space we have. It's not clear the bond we have here would accomplish that," Meninga said.
While it was stated that addition of a new science wing and auxiliary gym would free up space for expansion of other departments in NHS — like the idea discussed at a previous work session to potentially turn Willis Gym into additional performance space — no concrete plans were laid out for that during the discussion of scope.
Details like that will be worked out in the design phase and while vision team members did raise questions on similar topics throughout the scope-setting session, Tyner pointed out that those items would be addressed by the architects hired to do the job. Taking time to focus on the finer aspects of the project kept getting the group "off in the weeds" — something Tyner said the board could not afford, working on a limited timeframe to prepare for a special election in April.
No matter what the board settles on for the bond to take to election, vision team member and city commissioner Glen Davis illustrated the difficult position it is in given some of the feedback he has heard — that some citizens won't vote for the bond if there is no new elementary school included, while others won't vote if there is nothing done to address the Walton school.
"I almost think you guys are in a no-win situation," Davis said.
When all was said and done, the board and vision team had shaped a bond with an estimated cost of $58.83 million — with an additional $16 million potentially being added to that for the construction of a new elementary school building on the south side of town, an item that was approved as a separate ballot issue in a special meeting of the school board on Monday.
Concerns were raised about whether the groups had trimmed enough in the overall cost, given the community input that had been received about reducing the total of the bond, but board and vision team members alike stated the discussions they've had point to how necessary each of the improvements truly are. Communication will be the next key step in making the district patrons understand that and accept the bond the entities shaped.
"None of us want to come back and do this again a third time," said vision team member and Santa Fe teacher Jennifer Duncan.
"People in this room have to do the work," said board vice president Carol Sue Stayrook Hobbs.
Ultimately, the decision to move forward with a bond will hinge on if enough state funding becomes available based on the outcomes of several other bond issues up for a vote on election night, Nov. 6. Still, the Newton BOE will hold a special meeting at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 6 to discuss setting the final bond language.