Archive for Thursday, December 15, 2005

Board to study expanding current schools

December 15, 2005

Last week, De Soto school board members discussed how much they're willing to increase school sizes.

Although they couldn't come to an agreement at the last meeting, board members want to examine the cost of expanding some of the crowded Shawnee schools to fit current building capacities.

A note from Board President Sandy Thierer posted on the district Web site states the board directed staff to look at the cost of expanding schools to accommodate the district's current enrollment capacity policy. Although current policy caps enrollment in elementary schools at 550 students, special education classes and English as second language programs consume enough space to limit actual enrollment to as litte as 450 students, Thierer wrote.

The board is planning for a bond referendum in November 2006, a date that corresponds with the gubernatorial election.

Thierer asked staff to make financial comparisons of maintaining elementary schools at 550-student capacity and increasing them to 650-student capacity, the current middle school 750-student limit to a 900-student capacity, and the current high school of a 1,000-student capacity to an increase of 1,300-student capacity.

Thierer urged board members to make a decision that put students first.

"We need to decide what size is good for our kids," she said.

Thierer noted many audience members spoke in favor of keeping building sizes the same, rather than the possibility of saving money and building larger and fewer school buildings.

"I'm hearing from the community to keep the buildings the same," she said. "We've got to get off the dime, and we have got to make the decision based on, 'Is it academically good or not?'"

Although he agreed smaller schools are beneficial to students and the community, member Bill Waye said the board needed to know the financial parameters before making a decision.

"I agree we shouldn't make a decision based on money. I've already said I want to keep the building sizes the same," he said. "But I also don't want to make bond issue decisions in the dark."

Most board members at the meeting agreed that small sizes were preferable but didn't know how it would affect the district financially.

Board member Don Clark said the needs of taxpayers should be considered. He said he works with senior citizens who pay property taxes in the De Soto district.

"They're having a hard time right now because of the taxes," he said.

The meeting, well attended with the appearance of Kansas Education Commissioner Bob Corkins, gave many parents and district employees an opportunity to express opinions on the issue.

De Soto parent and Lexington Trails Middle School teacher Ed Wilcox said school sizes played a huge impact on his children's education.

"They were able to participate in anything they wanted to," he said. "Adam participated in a tremendous amount of things that in a bigger school (which) he wouldn't have had a chance."

Lexington Trails Middle School Principal Mark Schmidt said his experience with a middle school with more than 900 students in another district convinced him of the need for smaller schools.

"You don't seem to know the kids as well," he said. "Teachers at LTMS know their kids. I sure would hate to see that go away because of building size."

De Soto High School Principal Dave Morford said the district's small size encouraged parents moving into the district.

"One of my selling points is that we're the smallest school in Johnson County, and I see that register with people when I say that to them."

Morford also said the one advantage to smaller schools was at the high school level, where competition is tougher for sports classifications once they reach 5A.

Monticello Trails Middle School history teacher Keil Hileman said the school was already having difficulty and it hasn't yet reached full enrollment capacity.

"I know my students right now," he said. "I see them in the hall and know them. One of those initiative events was Columbine High School -- they had students who fell through the cracks."

Rather than focus on school size, Prairie Ridge Elementary School Principal Randy Doerksen emphasized the role of smaller class sizes in student achievement.

"Last year, my fifth-graders (at Prairie Ridge) were 27 to 28 to a classroom," he said. "This year, they're 21 to 22. My office referrals are down 40 percent."

Earlier in the board meeting, Kansas State School Board member Sue Gamble gave her ideas on building size based on her experience with the Shawnee Mission Northwest area.

"Elementary schools were built for 700 or more," she said. "The rest of the districts had 200 to 400 per schools, so that was a huge jump. I can tell you in my experience as a real estate broker that the maximum time of enrollment is when you open that school."

She said board members could use the opening number to set parameters for size.

"Over time your elementary will shrink because people don't tend to leave their housing," she said. "You have young families, so you won't have as quick a recession of those numbers. In more mature districts, they design buildings for community activities, and I think that will serve you well when you have that large of a facility."

The De Soto board has a short time to make decisions about an upcoming bond referendum.

Director of Communications Alvie Cater said future discussions will likely focus on the size of high schools since the board already supports small elementary schools and has built a third middle school.

Superintendent Sharon Zoellner said the board is running short on time because the district must submit its plans to the state board of education for approval. She said the approval process from the state takes about six months.

Thierer said she wanted a decision from board members about school size by January.

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