Media: News-Leader “A Neighborhood Needs A School”


Original Article: http://www.news-leader.com/story/news/education/2017/03/26/neighborhood-needs-school/98878024/

Author: Claudette Riley criley@news-leader.com


From a church at Grant Avenue and Atlantic Street, Rita Silic points west to Doling Elementary, north to Bowerman Elementary and east to Reed Middle School.
Doling now sits empty and a Springfield Public Schools’ new facility master plan calls for Bowerman to close and Reed to be rebuilt, although it is still unclear where.

Silic worries that if the district’s proposed $189 million bond issue is approved April 4, and the changes are implemented, the neighborhood of Woodland Heights — where Doling, Bowerman and Reed are located — will be left without a school.

“We are a neighborhood and a neighborhood needs a school,” she said. “A school is what keeps children in the neighborhood and without children, it cannot stay vibrant.”

The plan, unanimously approved by the school board, puts the fate of at least 17 buildings into question. Bowerman, Campbell, Delaware and York are slated to close and Doling, Tefft and the old Sherwood are empty.

Ten buildings are slated to be rebuilt, either at the same location or a new one, including Bingham, Bissett, Boyd, Jarrett, Pershing, Pipkin, Portland, Reed, Robberson and Williams.

“That’s how many neighborhoods will be impacted by the plan,” said Pete Radecki, chair of the Neighborhood Advisory Council, which studied the plan for weeks and opted not to support or oppose the blueprint.

Springfield school officials have said they will try to rebuild any new school within the current attendance boundary of the existing school, whenever possible, and will thoughtfully evaluate the community benefit for any old building declared “surplus” property and placed for sale.

They felt so strongly about making those commitments that they put them in writing. They are listed among the “guiding principles” of the facility master plan.

“Schools matter to neighborhoods. They matter to people,” said board member Charles Taylor, who met with Woodland Heights residents. “…We are really committed to rebuilt and reconstructed schools being in the same attendance area.”

Rhonda Ferguson, a former Springfield teacher who lives in the Woodland Heights area, said she is still on the fence about the bond proposal, which is the first funding request related to the new facility master plan.

“I am trying to look at it from both sides but as an educator, I feel very strongly about every child having the same opportunities. And, I know they are not,” she said. “Older buildings are just so limited because of space.”

Ferguson said school buildings provide a gathering place for families and their playgrounds provide space to play when there is not a park nearby. “The neighborhood schools are really important to our neighborhood. They are central to our identity.”

Julie Baker, who lives on North Douglas Avenue, said she chose her home because it was a quick walk to an elementary and middle school. She has a child with special needs and visits the school frequently.

“It’s close to Reed and Bowerman and the bus line. With the situation, I am able to get there quick,” she said.

She worries about what will happen if Bowerman closes and is not sold or repurposed in a matter of months. “What I am scared about is what are they going to do with the building?”

Several residents pointed to Doling, which was closed as a school in 2001 and used for district offices and programs until last year. It now sits empty and the district has not yet announced what will happen to the building.

They also complained about Fairbanks Elementary on Broadway Avenue. It changed hands several times and sat empty — the target of vandals that left it with fire damage and broken windows — before experiencing a renaissance as a community center in recent years.

Board member Tim Rosenbury said the district developed a new process for evaluating any offers on surplus buildings. It gives weight to proposals that have a community benefit and offers from individuals and businesses with a proven track record.

 “What we certainly don’t want to do is close a building, board it up and let it be,” he said. “…That is what we want to avoid.”

Rosenbury said former school buildings may experience a new chapter as an early childhood education center, performing arts academy, church, library or community health clinic.

He pointed out that a developer bought the former Bailey school on Central Street and is moving forward with plans to restore the historic property and transform it into lofts.

Bailey was offered for sale at the same time as Pepperdine. However, the district failed to receive any acceptable offers on Pepperdine and it remains empty. The district has said it will attempt to sell it again.

“It’s almost like ripping the neighborhood in half,” she said. “It’s taking away the focal point.”

Roxanne Bedell-Taylor attended Robberson, Reed and Hillcrest and still lives near Robberson, where she frequently volunteers. She worries that if the school is rebuilt elsewhere, the historic structure on Kearney Avenue will become vacant.

She said the neighborhood revolves around the school and there are many community partnerships that serve families on that campus. She said the food banks make deliveries there.

“It’s almost like ripping the neighborhood in half,” she said. “It’s taking away the focal point.”

The facility master plan calls for the construction of four campuses, where elementary and middle schools will be rebuilt and conjoined but maintain separate entrances, identities and principals.

The combination campuses, which are different from the traditional K-8 model, include Pershing Elementary and Middle School, Portland Elementary and Jarrett Middle, Boyd Elementary and Pipkin Middle, and Robberson Elementary and Reed Middle.

“I don’t like the idea of a one-size-fits-all approach,” Bedell-Taylor said. “We are told the schools are so deteriorated, they want to combine them?”

Bedell-Taylor said Central High School is an example of investing in a historic property and having it pay off. The school has been named among the top high schools in the nation.

“Everyone looks at that as a northside school that has been successful. It hasn’t deteriorated,” she said. “It has helped stabilize the neighborhood over there, even with all the encroachment.”

Pershing, a K-8, is already located on a single campus but the other three pairs involve relocating separate schools onto a single campus.

The district wants the combined campuses to sit on at least 10 acres. Pershing is over 10 acres and Portland is 9.5 acres but the other schools are on much smaller lots, creating questions for neighbors about where the combination campuses will be located.

Superintendent John Jungmann said each of the campuses will be designed with input from teachers and parents and reflect the specific needs of the neighborhoods it serves.

He said the district plans to partner with community groups to build on many of the services offered at the existing schools. He suggested there will be opportunities for the schools to be open in the evenings for a wide range of activities, from family dinners to adult education courses.

“You get the best of both worlds because you still get all those small, independent school environments,” he said. “It’s not like what we have with K-8s.”

Radecki, chair of the Neighborhood Advisory Council, said Springfield will be attempting a new concept that has not yet been tried locally. He suggested in a community meeting that the district try the approach at one school and see if it works.

“I’d be a little nervous that we’re going to build four of them in the first couple of years and hope they all work,” he said. “I’d feel more comfortable if it was ‘Let’s try one and see how it goes.'”

Demita Gookin, who lives in Woodland Heights, wants to see the schools in her neighborhood receive long-sought improvements. She isn’t opposed to the district building new schools either, as long as they are close.

“I can see we definitely need upgrades and support those things occurring but I want it to be where it’s still walkable,” she said. “I’m trying to figure out where our kids can still be close enough because not everyone is going to be bused.”

Jungmann said in developing the facility master plan, the need for busing was reviewed. He said the district may have to add a couple routes and tweak others but does not expect there to be much additional expense.

“I think the problem is, from a neighborhood stance, that if you start taking schools out of neighborhoods it won’t be good.”

“Transportation would be very minimally impacted as we’ve studied the zones,” he said. “We’d have to add very few buses.”

Anita Kuhns, president of the Grant Beach Neighborhood Association, said there is strong support for public schools but many — especially in the north part of the city — worry about what the changes will mean for where they live.

“Everybody wants good things to happen for our schools,” she said. “I think the problem is, from a neighborhood stance, that if you start taking schools out of neighborhoods it won’t be good.”

Kuhns said the exit of a school can impact property values, make it difficult to attract families with young children, and weaken neighborhood identity.

“When you start closing schools in a neighborhood, the neighborhoods get nervous,” she said. “You don’t know what is going to happen.”

School bond

Springfield voters will decide the fate of a $189 million bond issue on April 4. The funding request is the first step in implementing a new facility master plan that calls for 40 projects over 12 years at a cost of $367 million.

To pay for the work, the school board plans to ask voters for a second bond issue in five or six years and kick in at least $1 million a year in operating funds.

The plan was developed after a consulting firm evaluated each district building and made recommendations for how to address each school that was not in good or excellent condition.

If the April bond is approved, the district’s debt-service levy will increase by 24 cents over a two-year period. Fully implemented, it would raise the property tax bill on a $100,000 house by an average of $46 a year.

The April bond projects include:

  • New elementary and middle school buildings as part of combined campuses: Pershing, Pipkin/Boyd, Reed/Robberson, and Jarrett/Portland
  • First phase of major renovation: Hillcrest, Glendale and Pleasant View
  • Gymnasium: Kickapoo 
  • Addition and renovation: Sunshine
  • Renovation: Jeffries, Pittman, Wilder, Field, Disney and Holland
  • Additional classes for early childhood education.

Originally published: 5:42 p.m. CT March 26, 2017