By Andra Bryan Stefanoni
BAXTER SPRINGS, Kan. —
It’s been more than 38 years since a groundbreaking for Baxter Springs schools, so high school Principal David Pendergraft was understandably anxious about planning Tuesday’s ceremony to turn dirt for one of three new projects.
“I was nervous. But it couldn’t have gone better,” he said afterward, noting the blue skies, sunshine and a large turnout that included more than 500 middle school and high school students, city officials, district administrators and residents.
“And the kids cheered when they were supposed to and were quiet when they were supposed to be,” he said.
The festive mood — evident in the red shirts nearly everyone in attendance was wearing, balloons and the music contributed by the high school band — was a long time coming. The district had tried twice to pass a bond issue for new construction, but voters rejected the issues.
“But after the Joplin tornado, we knew right off we had to protect our kids,” said Bob Hall, a school board member, lifelong Baxter Springs resident and parent of three students.
Last April, voters approved an $8 million bond issue that includes an 18,000-square-foot seventh- and eighth-grade middle school addition immediately to the south of Baxter Springs High School, with the two to be connected via an atrium.
Construction also will include a 10,300-square-foot cafeteria and sixth-grade addition at Central Elementary, and a 4,000-square-foot kindergarten wing at Lincoln Elementary. All three projects will include storm shelters built to Federal Emergency Management Agency specifications.
“With the middle school, we had tried before to look at making it safe and compliant, but at about 100 years old, it is next to impossible,” Hall said. “We also looked at different options for portable storm shelters, too, but they weren’t really feasible, and that space couldn’t be utilized very well for anything else.”
By building a new middle school at the high school, the district will solve many problems, Pendergraft said.
“Our students will be safe, which was a top priority, and they will have access to an existing cafeteria, gymnasium, auditorium, track and library, which is a significant cost-saving measure when building a new school,” he said.
It’s also a win for the high school, Pendergraft said, because the new space will hold all students and staff members from both schools in the event of a storm. In current tornado drills, high school students head for the basement, and students at the other buildings go to hallways.
“But you look at the video of what happened in Joplin, and you quickly realize those are not the safest places to be,” Pendergraft said. “Once this is built, if there is bad weather, I hope it’s during the day, because we know our kids will be safe here.”
He said the project comes with a few additional benefits, including more efficient use of time for teachers who are shared by the middle and high schools, as well as easing the transition for seventh- and eighth-graders from middle to high school because they will be familiar with the campus.
Dirt work at the middle school site began in January. Groundbreaking ceremonies will be scheduled this spring at Central and Lincoln schools. Superintendent Dennis Burke expects classes will begin in the new middle school after students and staff members return from Christmas break in January 2014. Occupation in the other buildings will be by August 2014.
“This is a significant day for Baxter Springs,” Pendergraft said. “It’s been 38 years since we’ve built a school, and now it’s going on at every building. It’s exciting.”
THE LAST GROUNDBREAKING for the Baxter Springs School District was held for the construction of the high school, which opened in August 1975 and graduated its first class in May 1976.