July 24, 2024

Newton school board open to consider other master planning options

Officials determined to reach a conclusion before Christmas break

Even though the Newton school board has already made its master planning decision, the petitions from parents and the ensuing discussions of a new scenario proposed by the board’s vice president a few weeks ago have made some reconsider their past vote and examine other options.

During a prolonged discussion at the Nov. 27 school board meeting, board members who had voted in favor of the current master planning decision expressed interest in a change or voting on another option. Robyn Friedman, president of the school board, asked if it is worth their time to discuss it further.

“I don’t want to talk ad nauseam about it and then there isn’t even a feeling that we’re going to change that anyway,” Friedman said.

School board member Travis Padget said it is valuable enough to continue exploring other options. The 4-3 vote did not feel good, so Padget wants to keep hatching at it and stressed the need for more board involvement. He wants everyone to be on the same page going in and to feel confident with their votes.

Fellow board member Ray Whipple said he would definitely be up for change. When pressed by Donna Cook to explain why, he said after listening to everything he felt change “probably needs to happen.” Josh Cantu, vice-president of the school board, said he is also open to other options.

“I think there’s enough reason to continue talking about it,” Cantu said.

Whipple entertained the idea of holding another work session where all board members do is mull over each scenario. Padget shot down the idea, saying the board has already done that for some time. He reasoned other board members are not arguing or speaking up, leaving their opinions protected.

School board member Liz Hammerly said she knows what she wants; she wants a preK-4 option. Padget clarified he meant no one was speaking up or arguing before the vote or in the year the board members have been discussing this. He wants to know there is not a question that hasn’t been asked.

“Because when we started to vote it was chaotic because I couldn’t tell where people were sitting,” Padget said.

The action school board members passed in a 4-3 vote configures Thomas Jefferson Elementary into a preK-1 building and Emerson Hough Elementary into a grades 2-4 building, thus closing Aurora Heights Elementary and Woodrow Wilson Elementary. However, Cardinal parents petitioned the board’s decision.

Two sets of petitions gathered around 500 signatures each. One petition argued against the grade configuration and proposed two preK-4 buildings were ideal. The other petition argued the same thing but was against the closing of Aurora Heights, saying it would be better suited than Thomas Jefferson.

Both petition groups provided feedback to the board last month. At this past meeting, two of the petitioners spoke during open forum. Elizabeth Richardson urged school board members to listen to teachers and their input, because “what they have to say truly means more than what any of us have to say.”

Richardson recounted a past comment from Cook saying teachers are resilient to change, but she still worried about the teachers struggling from burnout. Richardson also commended Cantu’s idea, but she encouraged board members to consider what drop-off and pickup would look like at Thomas Jefferson.

Especially with more students and families showing up to the school.

Hilary Foster asked board members to explain cost estimates and their accuracy. She also worried what would happen if bids came in higher than expected, like the bids the city received for the golf course clubhouse. Foster also noted there were life and safety renovations for Thomas Jefferson that need addressed.

“Or if you choose not to do any renovations at TJ now, how long before they have to be done?” Foster asked. “And will the district be able to budget for them at that point? Lastly, is keeping a west side school open for the sake of having a west side school really a good idea? Is that ‘fair?’”

At the Nov. 13 meeting, Cantu proposed another option which piqued some interest. The new scenario would keep Thomas Jefferson as it is now, a preK-4 building. Aurora Heights could then be turned into a K-4 building, granted it would have more grade sections than Thomas Jefferson.

In terms of costs, it was in the ballpark of the scenario already voted on by school board members. The current scenario that was approved will cost around $21.3 million, and Cantu’s proposal would only cost $22.39 million. Rachelle Hines of FRK Architects + Engineers warned there would likely be additional costs.

Specifically, there would be costs to Thomas Jefferson, a school building that has challenges with accessibility and traffic, albeit less so than Woodrow Wilson Elementary School. There are also other improvements for Thomas Jefferson that will be needed in the future, regardless of the master planning proposals.

In order to make Thomas Jefferson more balanced, too, it would take investment.

“You probably need to do some parking,” Hines said. “And the other thing would be drop-off and pickup and how we’re going to accommodate that with the increase. I think you’re going to have to allocate money towards that even if it’s not something you really want to spend money on. There are issues there.”

Hines also said depending on how quickly the district gets through the design process, construction at Aurora Heights could take two years.

Another issue with Cantu’s scenario is the imbalance and its effects on culture and learning experiences. Superintendent Tom Messinger said the best way to do balanced sections is to do exactly what the board has already approved. The master planning committee’s No. 1 goal was consistent programming.

While Cook commended Cantu’s proposal, she argued it does not meet the consistency in culture goal that the master planning committee identified.

Friedman also generally stressed the need for consistency in the district.

Cantu’s scenario would make Aurora Heights into a six-section building and keep Thomas Jefferson a three-section building.

“The further apart we get this, the more difficult it’s going to be to balance and it just makes it extremely tough when you’ve got teachers across town that can have eight to 10 kids difference in their class sizes,” Messinger said, which he noted is a problem Newton is currently experiencing.

Discussion from the board continued past 10:45 p.m., or more than four hours after the board called the meeting to order. Friedman said the board probably won’t make its best decision at this time, but there is enough momentum and interest from the board to keep the discussion going.

“There was a request that we have a decision by Christmas break, so I propose we ask other questions,” Friedman 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.