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

West Central Elementary School. Globe | Roger Nomer

Following weeks of discussion and gauging community input, the Joplin Board of Education unanimously voted Tuesday night to combine West Central and Columbia, its two oldest elementary schools, into one building to be constructed at a new location.

Several board members said their primary reason for supporting the project was a safety concern at Columbia. The newly constructed safe room there cannot be certified as a safe room by the Federal Emergency Management Agency because of cracks in the walls because of mining activity and poor soil conditions, and settling on the east side of the school has also led to cracks in the walls and a separating of the walls from the floors.

“My biggest concern has been the safety because if one child gets hurt, I couldn’t live with the decision of not taking care of that,” board member Deborah Gould said. “I want what’s best for West Central and Columbia and Kelsey Norman. Every school has a special place in all of our hearts, and I hope you understand this is tough for all of us.”

Board member Lori Musser, a former principal at Columbia, echoed those sentiments.

“The thing I can’t get past is we can’t change where Columbia sits, and I wish we could,” she said, referring to the property. “To me, that’s just an unsafe location. I’d love to renovate the building, but all the renovation in the world isn’t going to change what it sits on. It’s an extremely tough (decision), but I believe we need to do what’s best, not only for our kids at Columbia and West Central, but for the entire district.”

Upcoming bond issue

In pursuing the project, which is estimated to cost $19.6 million, the board will submit to voters in April 2020 a bond issue that would generate revenue of $22 million to $25 million. The bond issue, if approved by voters, would keep the district’s levy at the current rate of $3.69 per $100 assessed valuation and extend the length of time that taxpayers pay that rate.

The project was recommended last month by the district’s long-term facilities committee in an attempt to promote safety and equity among school campuses and to address numerous issues with the old schools, including small classrooms, a lack of adequate space for services and programs, and noncompliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

District and school board officials also say the Columbia property has several problems, including poor soil conditions and mining features, that are undermining the structural integrity of both the original school structure and its safe room. A report from a local engineering firm has given the school a two-year window of occupancy for safety reasons.

Board member Debbie Fort was the principal of the old Irving Elementary School, which was destroyed by the May 2011 tornado and was subsequently combined into a new building with the old Emerson Elementary School. She said she was happy to vote for a new school to replace the district’s oldest buildings.

“I’m happy that Columbia and West Central kids are going to get something when they have been getting substandard (conditions) for years,” she said. “My perspective is I’m really happy for those kids.”

Also included in the school board’s vote Tuesday is another $2.875 million for an addition at Kelsey Norman Elementary School to add classroom and office space and eliminate the modular units.

Community proposal

The proposal to combine West Central and Columbia at a new location garnered opposition from many Columbia families who asked the district to find a way to preserve their neighborhood school.

“I believe in our community, we do love our neighborhood schools,” resident Zach Spiering told the board during a public comment session. “They’re one of the treasures of Joplin, and we’d like to see that continue.”

Prior to the vote, Spiering distributed to the board a community-driven proposal that urged the rebuilding of Columbia on its current site for an estimated cost of $15.3 million.

“If we rebuild Columbia, according to our bonding capacity, we still have about $5 million left, and we believe that investing in West Central would be a good use of those funds,” he said. “There are some things that need to be addressed at that facility, and I think that can easily be solved for less than $5 million.”

Sharrock Dermott, the board president, said he appreciated the community proposal, but he wasn’t comfortable putting more resources into one school over another, especially when they have the same limitations on the interior.

“It’s difficult for me to address the issues at one school and ignore or postpone a decision for our kids at West Central,” he said.

Tracy Horton, president of the Columbia PTO, said after the vote that she was upset by the board's decision to replace Columbia with a new school at a different site. She doesn't believe students at Columbia or West Central lack anything that pupils of other schools have.

"It was sobering that it was a unanimous vote, and it was encouraging to hear nearly all the board members say they were wrestling with the issue," she said. "I can tell it was deeply considered. ... But I respectfully disagree with their decision."

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