LIBERAL, Mo. — The Liberal School District is working to return to normalcy and plans to rebuild after two arson fires destroyed its bus barn, elementary gymnasium and former high school building last month.

Liberal students came back to school on Oct. 8 after being out for 11 days. Bill Harvey, superintendent of schools, said faculty and staff are continuing to push through as best they can and are keeping their morale up, despite the situation.

“All of the debris from the fire has been cleaned up, as of last week,” Harvey told the Globe last week. “Our kids have been back in school. We had to put all of our students in the high school building for two days last week, but since last Thursday, we’ve been back to school as normal.”

It’s been discussed by the school board that the students will most likely have to make up those missed school days during their upcoming fall break on Oct. 31 and Nov. 1.

“We should still have our full Thanksgiving break, which starts the Wednesday before Thanksgiving,” Harvey said.

The district was affected by two fires within days. The first fire was set Sept. 16 and destroyed the district’s old bus barn, in which was stored a school bus, a tractor and the high school’s track equipment. The second fire was set Sept. 22 and burned the former high school building and elementary gymnasium, but they were insured.

“Most of it’s going to be covered by insurance, but there’s still some areas where we may not get covered,” he said. “The school bus, it was a 2006 model, so the cost of replacing it is going to be a lot more than what we got for it, but it happens.”

The high school portion that was burned hadn’t housed students since 1998 and was mainly being used for storage. The elementary gymnasium was still in use, but Harvey is continuing to focus on the positive — no one was injured.

“The kids are doing well, and the staff is doing good," he said. "We’re back to normal as about as good as we could at this point.”

On Oct. 10, the school honored the firefighters who responded to the scene and extinguished the flames during the arson fires. The district held a special ceremony for the local heroes with plaques and resolutions from the governor’s office, the House and the Senate.

Suspects charged

The Barton County prosecutor filed charges Sept. 24 against suspects Nathan L. Jones, 27, and Thomas J. Ingram, 24, who were arrested the day before in the arson fires. Both men face six counts of second-degree burglary and six counts of second-degree arson. Ingram’s case has been set for a preliminary hearing on Nov. 1. Jones was ordered to appear before a judge last week for further proceedings.

Harvey said the district is increasing security and surveillance.

“We passed a bond issue two years ago, and we’re in the process to build two FEMA storm shelters on our campus here,” he said. “Our goal was to have any extra revenues left over from that ... going to beef up security.”

Harvey said officials are taking it one step at a time. The debris cleanup has been completed and now the district is in the planning stages working with architects and construction managers.

“We have plans to replace what we lost, and we’re hoping within the next year or so, we’ll have new facilities in place and try to get back to some type of normalcy again,” Harvey said. “We have a pretty strong community here.”

Rallying together

Travis Walton, the elementary physical education teacher, was significantly affected by the fire, in which he lost his office and his classroom. Walton said he has been in that building for the past six years and described how difficult it was to watch it go down.

“It’s going to be a rough year for a lot of different reasons, but we don’t have a gym now for elementary PE,” he said. “I’m teaching PE either outside in a track or inside of an old music room. Then, during the winter, we have first graders to seniors who are trying to practice basketball and get gym time, so it will be a rough year, but it will all work out and be better in the long run.”

The district’s faculty and staff held a chili and soup fundraiser before to the homecoming football game to help replace the school’s athletic equipment lost in the fires. For a minimum $5 donation, people could eat soup, chili and desserts before the football game. Walton said the event had an amazing turnout and raised over $5,000.

“We had a lot of our community, and a lot of people from other communities even, show up to eat,” he said. “It was very successful. The last count I had, we had 21 big pots of soup and chili that people were bringing in, and we actually ran out. The community has been so awesome with their support, not just financially but emotionally.”

News reporter

Kimberly Barker is a news reporter for The Globe who covers Northeast Oklahoma, Southeast Kansas, as well as Carl Junction and Webb City.

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