May 21, 2024

NCSD will host town hall meetings in August about master planning proposals

Survey garnered 119 responses from community members wanting more information, clarity

Jenny Mann speaks during an open forum about the Newton Community School District's master planning proposals at the July 10 school board meeting.

Two town hall meetings have been scheduled by the Newton school board as a result of residents’ responses from a community survey that say they need clearer information before the district makes any final decision on facility reconfiguration plans, which would ultimately close two elementary buildings.

The school district publicly announced its master planning timeline on June 28. At the same time, administrators sought input from residents in the form of a Google survey, which resulted in about 119 responses, superintendent Tom Messinger said. To make sure all information is heard, he recommended town halls.

“So that way we could bring all the information together and then answer some questions and provide more information that was requested from some different folks and move the process forward that way,” Messinger said to school board members, later noting FRK Architects + Engineers will be at the meetings.

Robyn Friedman, president of the Newton Community School District Board of Education, said a majority of the comments she read from the survey are not wrestling over the district’s need to reduce the number of elementary buildings, but rather how the schools realign afterward or during remodeling phases.

“That, to me, speaks for further need for understanding from the board side on that before we would make specific motions, and also for further understanding on the public side,” Friedman said. “I’m personally uncomfortable with us making any specific decision or action this early.”

There are clear concerns, Friedman said, about the proposed reconfiguration, which was estimated to start in 2024 and end in 2027 or 2028.

In addition to settling on the town hall dates, the school board heard from residents during open forum. Jordan Bell attended several meetings related to the master planning project and understands the importance of taking action in a timely manner, but she feels it could have been better communicated.

“Whether through bulleted points or an FAQ,” she said. “I think your town hall will solve that, because there were a lot of community members and faculty that were part of those discussions that we had. I understand the need and ultimately support the closure of two elementary buildings in our community.”

As a parent of children that attend schools on the west side, Bell also understands why both Woodrow Wilson Elementary School and Thomas Jefferson Elementary School were chosen to be closed. But, again, she said this information could have been better communicated to Newton families.

If the school district is in an immediate need for a building closure, Bell wondered if the most responsible action would be to close one building that is already due to be permanently closed. Bell reasoned it would allow the district to skip a phase in its plan and use the savings for temporary portable classrooms.

“While this is still not ideal I feel this would be less of a disruption to students by decreasing the number of building changes made during that transition period and would ultimately be a cost savings for the district,” Bell said, also noting another talking point of community members is fifth grade at the middle school.

Many are dissatisfied with having fifth grade included at Berg Middle School, she claimed. Bell said this opportunity could allow the district to look at realigning the two remodeled elementary buildings into a PreK-2 center and grades 3-5 center, keeping grades 6-8 at Berg and grades 9-12 at the high school.

“As uncomfortable as this time is, and as much as no one wants to see change in the district, it’s necessary for the overall health and quality of our schools,” Bell said. “This is our chance to be innovative, to keep students in our district and to draw new families into Newton.”

Jenny Mann also shared her concerns with the loss of west side elementary schools, saying many people living on that side of town did not know that was an option being considered. Mann said it would not be a smart decision to close Woodrow Wilson and Thomas Jefferson.

“I also think you’re going to have a hard time passing a $30 million bond if you exclude the entire west side of town,” Mann said. “There would literally be no schools left on the west side. And right now we serve 479 kids on the west side, plus the 100 that are in the preK. It’s a concern.”

Hillary Foster, who also participated in some of the planning sessions, strongly recommended the school board share the report and presentation from FRK Architects + Engineers with residents at the town hall meetings. Foster also suggested the town halls be held at the schools.

“You wouldn’t have to do a bus tour then,” Foster said. “You’d have people at the buildings for the town hall.”

Kristi Meyer has five kids in the Newton school district; three at Thomas Jefferson, one at Berg Middle School and one at the high school. She also attended the planning meetings and looked through the financial reports, which she said is information most of the public doesn’t have any clue about.

“It’s apparent something has to be done,” Meyer said. “Nothing is going to be perfect. Nothing is going to make everybody happy. I would love for Thomas Jefferson to stay open because that’s closest to me. I love that school … But if it doesn’t make financial sense.”

Meyer said part of the school district’s job in convincing the community of this plan is to provide them as much information as possible.

“I don’t know if there’s something else we can do to communicate reasonings why,” she said. “Why is that Emerson should be open? It’s already been closed once and now we’re going to remodel it. Why? Why does that make sense? Why does it make sense to close TJ? Why does it make sense to close Woodrow?”

These are questions that need answered, Meyer said.

Christopher Braunschweig

Christopher Braunschweig

Christopher Braunschweig has a strong passion for community journalism and covers city council, school board, politics and general news in Newton, Iowa and Jasper County.