June 19, 2024

School board vice-president comes up with alternative master planning option

Scenario keeps Thomas Jefferson as preK-4, makes Aurora Heights into bigger K-4 building

Josh Cantu, vice-president of the Newton school board, introduced another master planning option that the board will discuss at its next meeting. The option would keep Thomas Jefferson Elementary as a preK-4 and remodel Aurora Heights Elementary into an even larger K-4 building for about $22.3 million.

After sitting through an hour of comments from Cardinal families upset with the Newton school board’s master planning decision, school board vice-president Josh Cantu introduced a yet-to-be considered solution that could please both west siders and east siders and still remain within the district’s budget.

For the past 18 months, Cantu said it has felt like the school board has been in a win-lose situation. As he was thinking through what a “less win-lose situation” would look like during one sleepless night, Cantu developed another option. The school board already has a preK-4 building in Thomas Jefferson.

Up until now the district and the school board have been assuming or planning to invest in Thomas Jefferson infrastructure. If the school district did not do anything to Thomas Jefferson as a preK-4 and chose to spend money on another building to make it a little bit bigger and turn it into a six-section building, what would the costs look like?

Cantu pondered on this question. Thomas Jefferson would remain a three-section building, a considerably smaller building than the remodeled school. In total, there would be nine sections. The configuration would be Thomas Jefferson remaining a preK-4 school and making Aurora Heights into a K-4 building.

The school district’s architectural firm estimated the total costs of this scenario would be around $22.39 million, which is about $1 million more than the option passed by the board at the Oct. 23 meeting: To remodel Thomas Jefferson into a preK-1 building and remodel Emerson Hough into a grades 2-4 center.

“It’s as good as any of the estimates that we have, but it’s close enough to tell me that it’s reasonable for us,” Cantu said. “It’s well within what we would have.”

School board member Travis Padget was hesitant to the idea, worrying about the disparity of grade sections between the two buildings.

“I would struggle with that disparity,” Padget said.

Cantu pressed Padget on what would be the struggle with differing sections. Padget worried about the cultural differences between a small school versus a big school and the disparities in teacher collaborations. Of note, the configuration that passed will designate four sections to one building and five to the other.

Robyn Friedman, president of the school board, said Cantu is looking for a way to avoid back-and-forth petitioning from east side families and west side families. Cantu said he is throwing it out as a potential option to talk through and not dismiss, noting the board wasn’t going to take any action that night.

“In order to make a compromised decision, there has to be a give and a take … Josh was searching for something that’s a little different than what we’ve talked about,” Friedman said. “This conversation does serve a need for us to maybe think a little bit wider than what we’ve been given in front of us.”

As the outgoing member of the school board, Mark Thayer was pleased some of the board members were interested in taking a second look at the matter. He commended Cantu’s proposal, saying it could be a resolution for everyone in the community. There will still be people upset no matter the decision.

“I do understand that you’re still going to have two buildings close, and people that are attached to these buildings will have to say goodbye,” said Thayer, who voted against the master planning option. “…I really would highly encourage you to relook at it and, when you guys get a chance, to bring this to an action item.”

But there are still areas of Cantu’s proposal that need explored. Superintendent Tom Messinger said he did not have any of the transition information with this proposal. But he guessed it would mean less transitions for students since there would only be work on one building: Aurora Heights.

Which also means Emerson Hough and Woodrow Wilson would eventually close.

Messinger reminded one of the priorities in the initial master planning meetings was that no one would be able to determine which school a student went to based on the opportunities they had. A building with six sections is going to be different than a building with three sections.

“There’s no doubt about that,” he said. “Can it be overcome? I think that whatever you set your mind to you can make be effective in the end. But it would take concerted efforts, because, regardless of how unpopular this next statement will be, our elementaries do not function the same.”

Newton has to get away from that, Messinger added.

“We do have different opportunities based on where you go, and that’s just not acceptable. We have to be concerted in our efforts to make sure that whatever the outcome is we’re putting the best program forward for all of our kids, not assigning opportunities to a kid based on where they go to school.”

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.