New school forum shows safety is top priority

Fort Madison residents listen to Fort Madison Schools' Superintendent Dr. Erin Slater go over the plans for Monday's Community Forum on a third proposed referendum to build a new PreK-3rd grade elementary school on Bluff Road. Photo by Chuck Vandenberg/PCC


FORT MADISON – About 100 residents who showed up Monday to chat about another referendum to build a new elementary school, said safety is a top priority, but new athletic fields may have to wait.

The Fort Madison School Board hosted a community public forum at the Fort Madison Middle School and had freshly hired CMBA Architect Group, as well as representatives from Carl A. Nelson, the construction managers for the project, in tow.

Superintendent Dr. Erin Slater moderated the event with assistance from CMBA staff, but instead of a traditional power point and Q&A, the forum consisted of people sitting in about 13 groups and discussing issues ranging from the need for athletic fields in the project, to traffic and safety costs, and communication.

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After a brief introduction, CMBA’s Matthew Erion pointed out that 30% of the students in the district are attending schools that are 101 and 83 years old. He said the condition of the buildings is reducing instructional time.

“Access to technology decreased instructional time because of the environment where heating and cooling are not working efficiently, transitioning rooms that aren’t appropriate for the particular learning environment, those are all impacting the instructional time of those students,” Erion said.

He said overall, the cost to maintain those buildings such as Richardson and Lincoln is a 2:1 ratio with the older facility costing twice as much for the square footage as a new building.

Fort Madison attorney Mio Santiago, speaks on behalf of his group about whether new athletic facilities should be part of the referendum to build the district’s new PreK-3rd grade school. Photo by Chuck Vandenberg/PCC

He said when those buildings were constructed over 100 years ago, safety and security were not paramount and the changes that have happened over the past two decades are incredibly important to today’s design.

The first question posed to the groups was whether or not the district should consider pulling the athletic fields from the overall project.

Most of the groups said if keeping the athletic fields was causing the referendums to fail, then the district should pull the fields and the $1,020,000 costs associated with that construction. However, half of the groups said they fluctuated back and forth on the issue.

Mio Santiago, a Fort Madison attorney, said his group went back and forth on the issue, but settled on a yes, just because with the other bond attempts they weren’t aware of the real reason for moving the fields.

“We went yes, no, yes, no, and we ended up on yes, but it wasn’t a real strong yes. I think our reasoning was that when the original bond was voted on, we just saw ball fields being located here. It wasn’t communicated and clear to those at our table that the reasoning was to allow for future expansion at the high school,” Santiago said.

Rachella Dravis said her group didn’t want the fields to jeopardize the academics and facility for a new school.

Fort Madison School Board Vice President Diane Hope talks with members of the district at Monday’s Community Forum regarding another referendum attempt to build a new elementary school. Photo by Chuck Vandenberg/PCC

“We had a question that if the district gave you more information on the fields, would that persuade you, and we decided no,” Dravis said.

Other groups asked for additional tax information such as what would be the impact on the increased property tax with the fields out of the equation.

Jenny Steffensmeier said her group questioned the safety of the students with high school students driving over to the athletic fields for practice.

The traffic concerns were part of the second question for the group, which centered on additional costs to do more study on traffic flow.

Most groups said they would be willing to pay for the extra traffic study because it had immediate impact on each student and not just athletes.

The traffic concerns were also elevated by frustrations in the room with the current traffic flow at the Fort Madison Middle School.

Additional traffic flow improvements would raise the cost an additional $1.2 million to $1.8 million.

School Board President Dr. Tim Wondra said he was surprised by the large turnout and was impressed with the communication from the group.

He said he was surprised a bit by the majority of people willing to spend more on traffic considerations.

We debated back and forth on the traffic flow question and we decided to go with yes or no on it,” Wondra said. “Here’s the increase in cost, but it’s safety, too. I wasn’t sure what that trade off would be. There were a lot more yeses than nos and that surprised me. I was hoping for that because people realize that safety matters.”

The 2018 referendum used a cost estimate of $30 million, but early numbers used by Carl A. Nelson in bidding for the work indicated a total cost of construction and fees of just over $25 million. Wondra pointed out that with the county’s assessed valuation going up close to 23% this year, the cost per $1,000 will stand to go down on the project.

The 2018 bond attempt was projected to raise property taxes on a $75,000 bome, approximately $36 a year for 20 years.

Slater said she was surprised at the number of people in attendance, as well.

“We wanted to make sure we had targeted feedback. When you have a large group and you do that Q&A it’s hard to compartmentalize and use that information to go forward,” she said.

The district is still looking at an April bond issue, but Slater said the next step will be to take all the information from the forum back and start to dig through it.

“We’ll see. We’ll go back and the board will talk now.”

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