Public forums planned after recommendation of new Columbia, West Central school

Columbia Elementary School. Globe | Roger Nomer

Several residents urged Joplin School District officials this morning to preserve the school that they consider to be the "cornerstone" of their neighborhood, Columbia Elementary School, while others said they think it's time to move on from the building that's more than 90 years old.

The comments came at a public forum the district hosted to gauge public input on a recent recommendation that West Central and Columbia, Joplin's two oldest schools, be combined into one building to be constructed at a new location. The proposal is estimated to serve up to 450 students and would cost an estimated $19.6 million.

Daniel Koucky, who lives in the Columbia neighborhood, has a son who will be a kindergartner there next month. He said he was "really disappointed" in the committee's recommendation to combine Columbia and West Central into one building at a new location.

"The committee's recommendation will throw away a tangible cornerstone in our community," he said.

Koucky said he believes the school is the basis for his neighborhood's deep roots and community atmosphere, and a "major concern" is that the building would be abandoned if a new school is built elsewhere.

"This is a worst-case scenario for these neighborhoods," he said.

School district officials and school board members have said they do not want to see those buildings abandoned should they pursue new construction.

But Molly Williams doesn't believe that Columbia's "neighborhood school" feeling is confined to its current structure. Her three children attended Columbia, with all of them spending their kindergarten years in a classroom in a trailer, and she hopes the district will do what's best for its students and staff.

"I think the main concern is losing that neighborhood school culture," she said. "The thing I want people to realize is school culture is not based on a building. It's based on the parents, students, teachers and administrators and the involvement of all those people working together. ...There's no better time to make an adjustment to allow everyone to have a fair and adequate education."

About the options

The district's long-term facilities committee, in tasked with developing solutions to prioritize student safety and equity in schools around the district, recently told the Joplin Board of Education that several concerns exist at Columbia and West Central schools.

Both are more than 90 years old and have inadequate classroom sizes and space for other services, such as special education and technology, committee members said. The Columbia property also has poor soil conditions and mining features that have contributed to structural problems, such as cracks in the walls and a pulling away of some walls from floors, the committee said.

The committee considered four options that it said would address the "oldest and most problematic" schools:

• Combining the West Central and Columbia at the current West Central location. This would serve 450 students and would cost an estimated $18.5 million.

• Renovating Columbia and building a new addition at its current site. This would serve 300 students and would cost an estimated $15.2 million.

• Razing Columbia and building a new school at its current site. This would serve 300 students and would cost an estimated $15.3 million.

• Combining the two schools at a new site. This would serve 450 students and would cost an estimated $19.6 million.

The committee has recommended the fourth option. It also has recommended a $2.875 million addition of classroom space and offices at Kelsey Norman Elementary School to eliminate the modular units in use there and provide more space for programming and services.

The Joplin Board of Education has yet to make a decision on any of the options. If it pursues any of the scenarios, it would have the bonding capacity to pursue a bond issue of up to $25 million, potentially during the April 2020 election. Such a bond issue would not raise the district's tax levies, but instead would extend the length of time that residents pay the levies at the current rate. The total levy is currently $3.69 per $100 assessed valuation; the owner of a $100,000 home pays approximately $700 annually in taxes.

The district's final public forum is slated for 7 p.m. today at Columbia Elementary School, 610 W. F St.

This is a developing story and will be updated.

Emily Younker is the assistant metro editor at the Joplin Globe. Contact: eyounker AT joplinglobe DOT com.