I wanted to take time after reflecting on Tuesday’s efforts toward the Fort Madison Community School District elementary bond vote to say “Thank You”. First, thank you to all those who took time out of your day to vote. Whether you voted yes or no, thank you for taking time from your day to exercise one of the greatest rights we have in this country. Thank you to the many community members who gave so much of their time to try and help the children of our community. Thank you to the KIDS committee for working so hard, for coming to so many meetings and trying to inform the community and debunk all the false information the uninformed vocal few were trying to spread. Thank you to our teachers who taught our children all day only to turn around and give up their evenings and weekends to fight for the students they love so much to have a better, safer building for ALL students (regardless of their physical abilities). Thank you to Superintendent Slater and all of our administrators for working so hard every day for our children.
The question now is where do we go from here? We cannot just drop this and wait another 10 or 15 years. I’m going to try and list all the options that have been considered and why we decided a new elementary school located on the same campus as the middle school was our best option (hint, hint –it saved the taxpayers the most money.) Please read over all the options and give us feedback. My email address is listed at the bottom of the letter. All school board members emails are available on the school’s website. If you know a KIDS committee member tell them, even send a letter or email to either one of the local newspapers and I’m sure they will gladly pass it along to a school board member. Please help give us input so we can improve the learning environment for ALL of our students.
Before I begin, let me set the record straight, for the conspiracy theorists out there. Fort Madison Community School board members receive NO salary or reimbursement for their time spent. This elected position is strictly voluntary. None of us have or work for a business that would profit or even be able to bid for any of the construction contracts. We have nothing personally to gain from any building projects for the district. We have no ulterior motives. We all own homes and even some own commercial property so any property tax increase we will also directly feel. Our only goal is what is best for the children of the Fort Madison Community School District and trying to position our children and community and surrounding towns in our district, to grow and be successful for the next 50-plus years. When we make decisions, we try to look at the immediate impact they will have and also the long term impact on the district. None of the current school board members or the Superintendent had anything to do with the purchasing of the current land the middle school is on. The way that was done was a major reason why I initially ran for the school board. I have been on the board the longest and I was elected just as the construction of the middle school started. As citizens of the district, we all may have had issues with how the land was purchased or how the middle school was built but it is past the time to move forward. We, as a community have replaced the people responsible for those decisions.
It is time to quit punishing our current and future board members and district children for the decisions of people who are no longer associated with the district. Am I asking you to blindly trust what we say? No. But I am asking you to give us a fair chance, at least listen to what we are saying and then investigate for yourself. Do not just listen to your neighbor who is always against everything. Please inform yourselves. There is information available on the KIDS facebook page, the school district website. Our local papers have done a good job covering the information. In the future we will have community forums. We ask you to show up, speak up and listen with an open mind.
Just for future information, by law the school board is not allowed to promote a bond issue. The board is only allowed to provide factual information. So here are some options we have considered:
Remodel and add on to current elementary buildings. Some of the comments I have seen do not believe the price tag of $42 million. This option is more than just adding air conditioning to the buildings. It involves major renovation to the oldest parts of both buildings. Much of which are solid concrete which will bring issues Renovation will include taking the buildings down to the studs, moving walls and floors, remove and abate asbestos, new and additional wiring, new heating and AC units, new energy efficient windows and doors, adding security measures and moving the offices, adding classrooms including rooms for our pre-Kindergarten classes currently held off district grounds and a gym for Lincoln along with adding classrooms, elevators and a cafeteria area to Richardson. This option would take at least 2, more likely 4 years. We would have to purchase and use multiple mobile units to use as temporary classrooms, and pour concrete, run plumbing and electrical wiring for those. Where would we locate those so the children are not in the middle of a construction site? How conducive would this be to our learning environments? Renovation will not help with the pick-up and drop off problems currently faced at both buildings and it would greatly reduce the amount of green space and playground areas at both buildings. At the end of construction, we would still have multi story buildings which would be ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliant but not very ADA friendly. Any plan that involves multi story buildings relies on elevators for disabled children to move throughout the building. Elevators are not always reliable and in the case of emergencies or emergency drills, you are not to use elevators.
Build a new high school at the middle school site and convert the current high school to an elementary school. This would give Fort Madison a more centrally located elementary school. The drawback is cost. The new Liberty High School in Iowa City cost $75 million and construction for that started back in 2015, the bond for a new high school in Waukee was for $117 million. Our high school would not be as large as these two and we could still use most of the current athletic facilities but it would still cost well over $30 million. To do an even swap of what we currently have at our high school would include regular classrooms and Multi Purpose Room for the cafeteria, a kitchen for preparing and serving the high school students lunch, science rooms with lab areas, band and choir areas, culinary classrooms and kitchen, small theatre for drama/ speech/debate class, automotive classroom and repair area, building trades class/shop areas, welding shop/class area, agriculture classroom/lab area, Creative Learning Center classrooms, weight room, mat room and a gym. You could still use the current high school gym for competitions with the seating area but you would still need smaller gym for PE classes at a new high school. To continue services we would require a media center (currently housed in the High school library) and 21st century space that is currently very heavily used by our high school students. There would be a cost to convert our current high school to an elementary school. It is not just simply moving desks, the high school is set up for young adults. We would be bringing in our PreK, kindergarten, 1st, 2nd and 3rd graders. In the current building everything is much too tall for our young learners. Water fountains and restrooms, for example, would need to be replaced with much smaller, shorter versions. This is something that could definitely be done but just adds to the total bond costs.
Purchase the old Jefferson site back and build there. This option has several drawbacks. One is lot size. The current, single story building plan would not fit on that site and allow for off street parking along with playground areas. A response to that issue, would be to go a multi-story building. Couple problems with that: there are state rules and regulations that say certain grades have to be on the ground floor. Also, when you go to a multi-story building you are limiting the disabled students and volunteers to that level without additional ramps or elevators. We have to keep in mind long term maintenance and building upkeep. Elevators do not last forever, they have higher maintenance costs and cost more to operate. Another drawback to the Jefferson lot is traffic. I know this may surprise some of you but we really do pay attention to pick-up and drop off traffic flow and safety. Currently, it is quite an unsafe mess picking-up and dropping off at Lincoln and Richardson. Both locations have problems with cars parked where buses are supposed to be and often have cars double parking creating safety issues. Simple answer is to build parking lots. At the Jefferson site there would be no room for a parking lot big enough to hold the staff and parents cars and would parents really use them? Do the parents follow the traffic rules at the middle school now? It has two large parking lots. Do they park there to wait for their kids or do they park on the drive and block traffic? Plus, you would be greatly increasing the auto traffic in a very residential location. I am told that was the loudest, most often complaint about the old middle school location. All the traffic it created in a residential location and it wasn’t just during school hours. In the evening and weekends when they had events at the school it created traffic issues as well. I also received the suggestion to close Ave G and add Victory Field to the Jefferson lot to get an area large enough. It has been a few years but the last time I checked with city officials about permanently closing Avenue G at the old Jefferson location, I was told that Avenue G is a major thoroughfare used by the emergency responders and need to remain a through street. As a side note, rodeo parade would have to be rerouted if Avenue G was closed. I’ve been told the water table is high in the Storms Court, 24th and G, 24th and H area and that is something that would also have to be dealt with. I understand that was a major reason for the storm drain and street collapsing at 24th and G.
Pick a new location in town and purchase all the houses in the area, tear them all down and build a new school. To get an area large enough we are talking about multiple square blocks. That is a lot of houses to buy and tear down. In a town with a housing shortage the last thing we would want to do is remove a couple square blocks of homes and most of those homes would have had someone living in them for 10, 20, 30 plus years. I am not about to go kick someone out of their home so we can tear it down to build a school. Plus this option would be considerably more expensive because not only would you be building a new school but you would also be buying more land and homes. This option was eliminated immediately.
Build a new elementary school on land the district already owned. This would put the two schools with the most students bused to them right next to each other making busing a one stop pick-up and drop off. This would allow our busing to be even more efficient and provide the district with the ability to offer busing to all students. Having both of these buildings on the same campus would allow the district to operate at a more efficient manor, saving taxpayers money in the long run. One concern is increased traffic on Bluff road, especially with all the buses stopping to turn left into the school. We quickly reached the decision that a traffic study would have to be done and at the very least we would have to expand bluff road and add a turning lane for the buses. This would, of course, be done in cooperation with the city of Fort Madison. We recognize that we have a problem with the traffic flow at the middle school at the point where the drive narrows and it becomes dangerous when cars are parked there waiting to pick up kids and another driver pulls around the parked cars to go to the parking lot. We know the elementary school would need a wider drive. New construction would also present us with the opportunity to widen the middle school drive and connect the two drives giving parents with elementary and middle school students the ability to pull up to one location and drop their students off or pick their students up. New construction also gives the opportunity to a build playground on site that 4th and 5th grade students from the Middle School could use. We would build a separate playground designated for the PreK and Kindergarten students. When we were considering this option, we also looked at what other district facility was our next biggest need and identified high school baseball and softball fields. Since the High School is landlocked there is no room to reconfigure the fields to fit there. The only piece of land the district owns where the fields could fit would be at the middle school site. Anyone who helped build the Baxter Sports Complex can tell you moving the dirt and leveling the land to become ball fields is one of the biggest expenses in building a new field. So, we realized it would save our district taxpayers quite a bit of money if we built the ballfields at the same time as the elementary school since all the large equipment would already be onsite and moving dirt. So, this option would allow the district to operate more efficiently and effectively saving taxpayers money in the long run. This option would also give the district 3 buildings that should last another 75 to 100 years (the high school is in good shape and with yearly improvements that have been underway for several years, we should be able to finish the last phase of window and wall replacement to have a completely air conditioned building in the next 3 years.) This option also would give us the opportunity and means to correct the biggest traffic flow issue at the middle school.
I know this letter is very long but I wanted to let the voters know, we do hear you. We have considered many options before deciding on going down the path of building a new elementary school. We saw this as the option that would address the districts needs for the short and long term and save taxpayers the most money over the next 50 years while providing our students with the best possible learning environment. We also realize that our district is located in the county with one of the highest unemployment rates in the State. We also know our youngest learners need a building where they can learn safely and effectively and one in which ALL the districts young students can participate with their classmates and access every part of the building. Our administrators, educators, associates and support staff are outstanding and our students are performing at improving rates. A new school would undoubtedly assist and augment our student and their learning environments.
We have tried to answer all the questions posed to us. Some people may not like the answers we gave them but we have tried to answer questions as honestly as we can. We have tried to be very transparent with everything we are doing. People feel that was not the case before we, the current board and Superintendent, were elected or hired. These are the facilities and issues we inherited from previous boards and administration. We cannot go back in time and change how they operated or decisions they made. We can only start where we are right now, at this point in time. I think everyone can agree the 2 elementary buildings, in their current state, cannot provide a safe comfortable learning environment for our youngest, most vulnerable students. Neither building can adequately accommodate our disabled learners who need our help the most. It is time for all the negativity to stop. We need to put our differences aside and come together to find a positive solution to this problem. The longer it takes to come together and come up with a plan that 60% +1 of the voters will approve, the more expensive the plan will be.
We are open to new ideas or just changing and fine tuning some of the options I listed above. We are open to all constructive, positive ideas and questions. If you have ideas, please contact us. If you have questions, please contact us. It does not help anyone if you have an idea but just sit back and wait to be asked. If you want to be a part of the process, please contact us. We are working on trying to have some kind of a community meeting but honestly we are running out of ideas of when and where to have them. We tried having community meetings in the evenings at the 2 elementary schools, we tried having meetings in West Point at the Library, in Denmark at the Firestation, in Fort Madison at the library, in St Paul, on weekends at various locations but usually it was the same small handful of people who came or no one shows up at all. We went to Rotary Club, Lions Club, Kiwanis Club, parent teacher conferences, all school band night, multiple community events, almost any district event in the past couple months has had someone from the KIDS committee there handing out information and answering questions. We started a Facebook page to try to be more interactive and reach a broader audience. We have information on the district website and for this last bond there was even a separate internet page just for the bond to answer questions and list information. To find board members email address go to the district website, www.fmcsd.org click on the school board tab and then roll down to about the board and there, listed on the right side of the page is all the board members and their email addresses.
Let’s move forward together in a positive way and do what is best for the children of the Fort Madison Community School District.
Dr. Tim Wondra D.C.
School Board President, FMCSD