Board candidates offer differing approaches to growth
Those elected to the De Soto USD 232 Board of Education April 3 will have the job of deciding how the district will add classroom space as enrollment continues to grow. The selection process starts Feb. 27 when district voters narrow the list of candidates for the at-large position from four to two and eliminate one of the candidates running for the Position 2 seat.
The bond issue rejected by voters in November would have expanded Mill Valley to a capacity of 1,250 students from its current 1,000-student capacity and built two new elementary schools, one in west Shawnee and one in a yet to be determined area on the district's west side.
Since the defeat of the bond issue, the De Soto USD 232 Board of Education has started to look at expanding schools, particularly the four elementary schools of Clear Creek, Mize, Riverview and Starside.
The Explorer asked candidates in the two primary races their views on enlarging current schools and the maximum enrollment numbers they would support on elementary, middle school and high school levels.
De Soto businessman Richard Brazukas said expanding the four elementary schools made sense.
"If you expand the existing schools, you wouldn't have to ask students to make an adjustment to a new school where boundary changes are being made," he said.
Brazukas questioned why Prairie Ridge and Horizon elementaries, the district's newest elementaries, weren't designed to be as readily expandable.
Brazukas said rather than fit all schools to a certain size, they should fit their neighborhood. The district should carefully study where growth is going to occur and then build schools of the appropriate size to accommodate neighborhoods, Brazukas said.
Incumbent board member Don Clark said he would support an increase in enrollment from 600 to 625 for elementary schools.
"I would support a little bit of an increase in elementary schools if it would make a good long-term impact."
There would be no pressure to increase enrollment capacity for middle schools for some time with the opening next August of Mill Creek Middle School, Clark said. When the time came for the district to add more middle school capacity, he said he would support schools from 850 to 900 students. The district's current middle schools can accommodate 750 students.
High school enrollment should be limited to the 1,250 to 1,300 students, Clark said. The $105.7 million bond issue defeated in November would have expanded Mill Valley High School to 1,250-student capacity.
"You have a 5A high school for activities in that range," he said. "That means more opportunities for activities for more students. And I definitely mean activities -- band, choir, plays -- not just athletics.
"I think you open up the door for bigger problems and bigger issues if you get bigger than that."
Kevin Straub said he would support expanding elementary schools but not the size of classrooms.
"I don't know the magic number," he said. "I think we could bump it from 650 to 700. I don't think that would make a big impact, putting another 100 kids in a building."
Larger elementary schools would reduce the number of transfers forced on students as the district adjusted school boundaries with the opening of new schools, he said. It would also be cheaper for taxpayers because the district would have to buy less land for new schools and have fewer principals and other administrative costs.
Like Clark, Straub agreed the district had plenty of space for middle school students for some time.
Straub said he supported high schools of from 1,800 to 2,000 students because it would allow district high schools to offer students more academic options.
"Eighteen hundred is probably a good number where you could offer more classes," he said. "With more students you could offer more foreign language classes and land more college placement courses."
Kasey Willnauer said enlarging Clear Creek, Mize, Riverview and Starside elementary schools was "the way to go."
"I think it would be better to build on to the elementary schools because of the expressed opinion of the parents of keeping their children in their schools," he said.
Willnauer said he would also support enlarging high schools, but didn't want to see schools in the district as large as those in Olathe or Shawnee Mission districts and wanted to keep classes to fewer than 20 students.
"I would like to see 1,250 or so in our high schools before we build another one." he said. "As long as we can add to the schools like they designed for and keep a good 20-to-1 student-to-teacher ratio that would be the best decision we could make because we could offer classes we haven't been able to before.
"I feel adding to Mill Valley is needed as the fiscally responsible thing to do. With more classrooms, we can have more classes. We could add more foreign language classes."
But Willnauer said that was only his opinion and one of his goals was to establish consensus among the board, administrators and parents.
Bob Dyche said he came away from a recent meeting USD 232 Superintendent Sharon Zoellner had with candidates convinced the district should increase the size of the four elementaries.
Cedar Creek and Riverview elementaries should have been expanded before Horizon Elementary was built, which he views as built prematurely because there are not yet enough homes south of Shawnee Mission Parkway to fill it, Dyche said.
"Sometimes bigger is better," he said. "I'm a graduate of Shawnee Mission Northwest, which was one of the larger schools in the state at the time. I don't go along with the idea students get lost."
Quality teachers and involved parents matter more than school size, he said.
He would support high schools of the size of those in the Shawnee Mission and Olathe districts, Dyche said.
"I do not have any problem with Mill Valley or De Soto being expanded out," he said. "I'm not of the opinion you put a Band-Aid on the problem every few years. I don't see anything wrong with 1,300 to 1,500 students.
Don Gentry said he supports increasing Clear Creek, Mize, Riverview and Starside as part of his overall philosophy.
"I think you need to explore the option of schools supporting the natural geographic boundaries in which they belong," he said. "If that means expanding Mill Valley High School to 2,000, I would support that as long as you kept class sizes the same."
In Gentry's view, the natural geographic boundaries of Monticello Trails Middle School and Mill Valley High School is that part of the USD 232 north of Shawnee Mission Parkway and east of Kansas Highway 7. The two schools ought to have enrollment capacity to absorb the students from that boundary, he said.
As part of an earlier USD 232 board that set school sizes at 550 for elementary schools, 750 for middle schools and 1,000 for high schools, he would be a voice of restraint against increasing enrollment capacity, Jim Thomas said.
"I think those are really solid numbers," he said. "They're about optimum. I think if you get much smaller or bigger, you lose some of the magic."
Good students would continue to excel in larger schools and challenged students would get attention from special programs, Thomas said. Average students would get lost and would lose out to more talented youngsters in the competition to participate in activities, he said.
At the same time, he understood the need to be fiscally responsible, Thomas said. If educators convinced him schools could grow and still realize the district's commitment to excellence, he could support high schools of enrollments of 1,200 and elementary schools of 600 students.
"I'm just not in favor of getting much bigger than that," he said. "I just haven't seen any research that says we're doing our students any justice by doing that."