September 27, 2022

Officials are determining best ways to move forward with master planning communications

Newton school board taking serious look at district sustainability

Newton school board members discuss master planning and facility assessments during a work session Aug. 8 at the E.J.H. Beard Administration Center.

Information shared to school board members during a long work session on Aug. 8 about the Newton school district’s master planning and facility assessment suggest big changes may be needed in the years to come. Although no plan is set in place, the school district is preparing ways to engage the public.

Teachers of the Newton Community School District were notified of the work session by superintendent Tom Messinger. In his letter, he stated the board is determining “the best way to move forward with a dedication to financial responsibility and a commitment to improving opportunities for our students.”

Messinger said district administration will continue keeping faculty informed on the process, discussions and outcomes over the next weeks and months.

“There will be opportunities for you, as staff members, to be a part of the process as well,” Messinger said in the letter. “There have been no decisions made, and no preset course of action has been determined other than wanting to move forward with greater community engagement.”

The work session was facilitated by Rachelle Hines of FRK Architects Engineers, who asked officials how they would want to inform and receive input from the community in this process. School board member Ray Whipple wanted feedback from the people most impacted: families and teachers.

If, for instance, the district closed down some buildings, Whipple said he would want to hear from the students and families who are within the vicinity of those schools and the teachers who reside there. Robyn Friedman, president of the Newton school board, said she wants the community to understand the “why.”

Friedman wants the community to help drive those bigger decisions, whatever they may be. The people of Newton have to be aware. School board member Travis Padget said real conversations about the district’s issues will be key, but the board could also provide options for the community to support.

To counter that point, school board member Liz Hammerly asked what if the community does not wish to close buildings or take action. Padget said eventually at some point action will have to be taken so as not to risk “being defunct as a district.” Hammerly, too, wanted maximum community involvement.

“In the end, I think our goal is to bring the most people along as we can,” Friedman said. “We can’t control the fringe. We can make the best communication pieces we think that we have. And we have that huge communication plan and SIAC involvement, et cetera.”

Still, Hammerly was worried the community would not get involved or feel uninformed. Friedman was convinced as soon as news broke about the district looking at the future of some school facilities, people would start to pay attention to what is happening in their own backyard. Messinger said it will take a lot of work.

School board member Donna Cook remembered when the district considered closing Emerson Hough and received threats of lawyers taking action if anything happened to the building. Friedman said that’s why it is so important to understand the reasons the district and the board are even engaging this topic.

Based on the information Hines received from school board members, she determined the district wanted a community led and community driven outcome. Knowing what will be the driving factor to convince the families of Newton to get onboard with a solution is going to be a challenge.

Although many school board members spoke highly of the engagement process for the new middle school, and seemed interested in duplicating that, Friedman disagreed with using that scenario as an example. The closest example, she said, is the closing of Emerson Hough or consolidating the elementary schools.

“To be realistic, that’s where we as a board have to be ready for. That’s the conversation,” Friedman said. “The Berg piece was easy compared to those pieces. The disruption was not we were building a new building, it’s that we caused every elementary school to be disrupted.”

Still, the school board seemed open to establishing a task force of up to 35 community members to look at the information critically and recommend solutions. Visioning sessions or town halls, Hines said, could also be ways to engage the Cardinal families. Online surveys could also garner feedback.

Cook advised against giving people any idea that the school board has a pre-set agenda or is leading the community toward a certain solution. Friedman said it is important for people to know the school district has money it is authorized to spend on building without taxing people more.

“And we are going to have to spend money on buildings no matter what, based on a five-year, 10-year plan,” Friedman said. “How do we spend this money most affectively to benefit more of the community sooner?”

Tim Bloom, director of business services at Newton Community School District, discusses master planning and facility assessments during a work session Aug. 8 at the E.J.H. Beard Administration Center.

EVALULATING INFORMATION FROM FRK ARCHITECTS ENGINEERS

Why does the district want to make changes to its master planning and facilities? Padget said part of the reason is the state government’s unwillingness to support its schools year after year after year. As a result, he suggested there has been a compounding impact that is coming.

“And we are looking at alternatives and options,” Padget said. Although no specific options were laid out by the school district’s engineers, the report Hines provided to board members shows there are issues with buildings. Specifically, the costs of keeping old elementary school buildings up to date.

By 2024, Hines said the Newton school district could be seeing a potential deficit.

Over the next 10 years or so, FRK estimates the Newton school district will have to pay more than $67.6 million in facility improvements. About $40 million of which is attributed to the high school, the biggest building in the district. However, Hines said that number is not entirely correct as some projects can be held.

“There are some items you maybe wouldn’t do if you do one or the other,” she said.

Still, some buildings’ improvements stood out from the rest. Of note was the staggering $10.5 million in improvements at Woodrow Wilson.

Even more so when elementary schools like Aurora Heights and Emerson Hough may only require $2.6 million and about $1.5 million, respectively. Berg Middle School, the newest building, has an estimated $2.4 million in improvements. Thomas Jefferson is on the high side with Woodrow Wilson at $5.5 million.

Meanwhile, WEST Academy comparatively has less costly improvements at $89,000, while the activities and technology facilities garner an estimated $4 million and $1 million in improvements. Utility costs per square feet are adding up, too. Woodrow Wilson has the highest at $1.62 per square foot.

Which essentially means there are some efficiency issues at the elementary school, and perhaps other buildings as well. Berg Middle School has the lowest utility costs per square foot at $0.81 per square foot. Information from FRK also breaks down a number of the improvements.

Here is a look at some of the more expensive projects at each building:

Newton High School — $33 million to rework classrooms to better utilize space and update IT, especially in older parts of the building; more than $1 million to replace flooring; more than $1.1 million to renovate kitchen/cafeteria area; and more than $1.6 million to install a fire protection system.

WEST Academy — $50,000 to renovate life skills space, which will add a stove, refrigerator, exhaust hood, dishwasher and washer/dryer; and $25,000 for another renovation to add a nurse station with shower.

Berg Middle School — $2.43 million to add a possible addition to the west side of the building for a wrestling room and visitors lockers; and $7,500 to provide insulation for noise control at the science room.

Aurora Heights Elementary — $2.25 million to create an addition to the building so the gym and cafeteria are separate from each other, which will make scheduling easier; more than $261,000 to add a fire protection system; and$60,000 to renovate technology room into another space.

Emerson Hough Elementary —more than $362,000 to install a fire protection system; $350,000 to renovate the student restrooms; more than $194,000 to replace the roof; more than $181,000 to replace the fire alarm panel; and $150,000 to replace the boiler.

Thomas Jefferson Elementary — $3.75 million to renovate the interior; more than $372,000 to update interior courtyard; more than $372,000 replace the roof; more than $349,000 to install a fire protection system; $250,000 to replace the chiller; and $230,000 to replace the existing steam boiler and associated piping.

Woodrow Wilson Elementary — $6.5 million to remodel, replace or demolish the original second story building; $2.25 million to create a new gym space and separate the cafeteria from the gym; $300,000 for AEA; $300,000 for a speech addition; and $300,000 to replace the boiler system.

Activities Facilities — $2.5 million to create a new baseball field near the softball field; $1.15 million to create a multi-purpose building at the high school; and $402,500 to remove existing lighting including towers and replace with LED.

Contact Christopher Braunschweig at 641-792-3121 ext 560 or cbraunschweig@newtondailynews.com

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.