Residents at the Joplin School District's second day of public forums said they support combining West Central and Columbia, the district's two oldest elementary schools, into one building at a new location.

That proposal also has been recommended to the district by its long-term facilities committee. The new school, as proposed, would serve up to 450 students from both West Central and Columbia and would cost an estimated $19.6 million, to come from a bond issue that would have to be approved by voters.

Before making a final decision, the Joplin Board of Education has been hosting public forums to gauge input on the proposals. Wednesday's forums were at Irving Elementary School, which was built in 2014 and is the combination of the old Irving and Emerson schools, both of which were destroyed by the 2011 tornado.

Lori Stebbins, a PTO parent at Irving who has a child going into the first grade there, said combining the two old schools is a "no-brainer."

She said she was surprised to learn the extent of concerns at West Central and Columbia outlined by the committee, including small site sizes, inadequate classroom and program spaces, and 90-year-old infrastructure. Columbia also has a number of additional concerns with mining features and poor soil conditions on its property, which have contributed to cracks in the structure and a separating of the walls from the floors.

"Both those buildings are old, and even if you put all those repairs into those buildings, who's to say in 10 years it won't be the same or worse?" she said.

Stebbins said she has no experience with a traditional neighborhood school such as West Central or Columbia. But she has been happy with her child's experience at Irving, which has many of the features that administrators say are lacking at the older schools, such as flexible learning spaces and enough room to hold all necessary programs.

"It's a bigger space, and it's not as close to the road," she said of Irving. "There's a nice, big open library. The classrooms have long, tall windows with lots of natural light."

Michael D. Landis, a former Joplin School Board member, attended the forum to learn more about the proposals. He said a bond issue that would not increase the current school tax rate would be a "good thing" to build a new school for a combined West Central and Columbia. Such a bond issue would keep the school district's levy at its current rate but would extend the length of time that property owners pay that rate.

"I want (those schools to have) a new identity, and let them build that for the future," he said. "It's not the building educating the students; it's the people educating the students."

Favoring one option

Other options considered by the committee included:

• Combining the two schools at the current West Central location for an estimated $18.5 million.

• Renovating Columbia and building a new addition at its current site for an estimated $15.2 million.

• Razing Columbia and building a new school at its current site for an estimated $15.3 million.

As was the case at the school district's first forums on Tuesday, Wednesday's attendees wrote on sticky notes left on large posters detailing each of the options that trying to renovate Columbia or rebuild on that property could be problematic.

"Adding on to a very old, outdated structure still poses concerns for (the) safety of (the) existing structure," one sticky note stated. Two additional sticky notes bluntly called those options "the worst decision" and "the next poorest proposal."

Wednesday's attendees, which included three principals of other schools in the district, left several sticky notes in favor of combining the two schools at a new location. The reasons written on the notes were that teacher collaboration would be better with more staff members, that high-need special education students would have a better elementary school experience, and that there would be better efficiency in general.

Mary Lou and Robert Teeters, who attended the 7 p.m. forum to learn more about all four options, said they support combining the two schools at a new location over the other three proposals.

"They (the school district) have one good idea and three bad ones," Robert Teeters said.

Also recommended by the committee is the construction of an addition at Kelsey Norman Elementary School for an estimated cost of $2.875 million. The addition would eliminate the modular units in use there as well as provide space for the school's counseling program and other services that currently share classrooms, committee members said.

If you go

The final forums will be at 10 a.m. and 7 p.m. Thursday at Columbia Elementary School, 610 W. F St.

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

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