Michael D. Haluska, Superintendent
Decorah Community School District
Welcome to our patrons as I endeavor to communicate on a variety of topics brought to the attention of the Board of Education and administration of the Decorah Community Schools via our District’s needs assessment conducted last fall.
As Rick Fromm so eloquently pointed out in his column published July 21, I hope to create a dialog regarding these pertinent subjects in a series of articles to be published in the Decorah Journal over the course of the next several months.
It would appear from the needs assessment, not to mention conversations with a variety of patrons, the biggest source of conversation related to the Decorah Schools is wrapped around the issue of facilities, especially as it relates to a potentially new elementary school building, the upcoming change in the sharing agreement with North Winneshiek, and the ultimate joining of the two districts.
As early as the 2008-09 school year, Shareholders (the district’s School Improvement Advisory Committee) began a discussion of district facilities. At that time, it was clear decisions needed to be made regarding improvements at John Cline, West Side, and the High School. Actually, the feeling of the group was that John Cline and West Side warranted attention before the High School. However, the dire condition of the High School heating system pushed the needs of that facility to the forefront and, with the overwhelming support of our patrons, the District undertook the task of a $20.7 million addition/remodel of that structure.
Needless to say, the project was very successful and provided the Decorah Community
School District with a high school facility that takes a back seat to very few in the state of Iowa.
To their limits
Still, the issues with John Cline and West Side lingered. Enrollment needs have pushed both buildings to their limits. The buildings serving our youngest students are lacking in a variety of areas, least of which is the ability to air condition. Likewise, the same facilities serving our most vulnerable students are also those offering the poorest security in the District.
While some measures have been taken, the board and administration have done about as much as can practically be done with the existing designs. In the 2012-13 school year, Shareholders again began studying options for our elementary facilities. With the assistance of the District’s architects, we began planning for options, as they existed. Then as the study of District needs continued, it became more and more evident North Winneshiek would be changing the course of whole-grade sharing that had been in place since 2002.
With their growing financial concerns, the board and administration of North Winneshiek indicated the need to include grades 7-8 in the whole-grade sharing agreement beginning in the 2017-18 school year. The potential influx of students into Decorah Middle School, which is experiencing its largest enrollment numbers since the new facility was constructed, forced the Decorah Schools to consider not only an elementary that would house the students from both West Side and John Cline, but one that could house third grade as well, creating the ability to reallocate the attendance center at Carrie Lee to grades 4-5 and the Middle School to grades 6-8.
As we’ve been known to say amongst the board and administration, increasing student enrollment is a good problem to have, but it’s still a problem. How to adequately house our students, while looking into the future and the potential combination of the Decorah Schools and the North Winneshiek Schools, forced Shareholders and the board of education to ratchet-up their study of what that future may look like and the added impact it would force upon existing facilities.
Now that the city of Decorah has chosen to back away from the sale of land immediately west of the current John Cline Elementary, the District must turn to other options for a building site. In examining sites for a new elementary building, three primary issues must be kept in front of us.
Obviously the first issue is whether or not the property could hold a facility that would have to house minimally 600 students from our Early Childhood Special Education program (3-year-olds) through third grade. Furthermore, students in the ECSE program through first grade have to be located on the first floor and have ground-level egress from the building (second and third grades could be housed on a second floor). The building would be constructed to house six-section grade levels, with a flex room for grades K-3 to allow for potential future growth.
Finally, we would want a full-size gymnasium to accommodate the elementary physical education program, as well as a separate cafeteria, so as to allow for greater flexibility in scheduling.
The second issue that must be examined is the need for “green space.” In other words, outdoor play space for children from the ages of three through eight. The research is clear regarding the need for physical activity throughout the day, which is proven to accelerate the learning process. Along with that, regulations for an approved, quality preschool program requires separate age-appropriate play space for children ages three and four.
It’s this adequate play space that would eliminate, for example, simply tearing down the current John Cline and building a new facility on that site, as it could not possibly provide adequate space for both a much larger building and adequate green space.
The final issue is that of transportation/traffic flow. The facility would ideally be located where several routes would exist to move both bus and car traffic away from the area. Given the site will serve ECSE through grade three, we would be looking at somewhere in the vicinity of seven buses dropping off/picking up at the site. That’s not to mention the number of cars dropping off students in the morning and picking them up after school.
Given that number would include all the cars currently dropping off/picking up at West Side, John Cline, and roughly half of the cars at Carrie Lee, the number could easily reach into the hundreds. It will be incumbent that the site that is chosen can move vehicles safely around our youngest children.
Another topic that arises is where a new facility is to be located. Near the business district, as the current John Cline facility is, or nearby that area? Somewhere in the city proper? Do we look on the fringes of the city or beyond the city limits or even contemplate the long-term use of the North Winn facility?
Is the site nearby the necessary infrastructure — electricity, natural gas, water, sewer, and fiber optics? These are the topics both the Shareholders and board have studied for years. It appears many parents of young children like the location in the center of the city. After all, it’s convenient for working parents for drop off and pick up, and if it’s necessary to pick a child up for a doctor/dentist appointment over the noon hour, little time is lost getting to the child.
Also, the site is convenient for stopping by local stores on the way home after school. All of that assists our local merchants.
Furthermore, cross-age teaching currently takes place between High School students and those at John Cline. Whether it’s reading books, listening to early readers, or working with second grade students about food production, it’s a great opportunity for role modeling and the young students relish the time with the older ones.
If the facilities get too far apart, those opportunities may cease to exist. I’m sure we all realize locations in the city proper of five to 10 acres are scarce, to say the least. What sites do exist still must measure-up to not only enough room for the building, but green space and traffic flow. Then we have to determine if the infrastructure in the area can provide what is needed to run a modern school facility serving 600 or more students.
On the fringe
All the same can be said for sites on either the fringe of the city limits or just beyond. Do parents of our youngest children mind their children being a little bit further away? What costs are going to be involved for purchasing property (assuming there is property for sale) and then creating the necessary infrastructure in terms of grounds preparation, paving, water and sewer, gas and electric, and fiber.
Even if those questions can be answered affirmatively, what would the traffic situation look like? For instance, look at the prospect of purchasing property north of the city on Locust Road. With Locust Road, there is only one practical route to town and that route hits a tremendous pinch-point at the intersection with College Drive. For those who already deal with that situation on a daily basis, imagine adding seven buses and an additional 100 cars between 7:45-8 a.m. and a similar situation from 2:45-3:15 p.m. That would be unmanageable.
Finally, there is the North Winneshiek building as a long-term solution. While some classrooms were added in the late-90’s, most of the North Winn building is of the same vintage as John Cline. Likewise, most of the facility is not air-conditioned. The first grade wing at John Cline is made up of rooms that are 775 square feet in size and we struggle to accommodate 22-23 students in those rooms (keeping in mind that active classrooms today are a far cry from what many of us experienced in elementary school, sitting in neat rows). A number of rooms in the North Winn building are either 700 square feet or 500 square feet, both of which are too small to accommodate classes of 19-23 students.
Walls could be taken down and remodeling done, but the building would be hard-pressed to accommodate the 350 students currently at John Cline. Some may say we could send two grade levels there. Yes, we could possibly do so if money was spent on renovations. Yet is it in the best interest of the Decorah Community Schools to send students that far out of town on a long-term basis? How much money would have to be invested in the facility?
Just the cost of busing those two grade levels annually would exceed $47,500. Could those general fund dollars be put to better use? And, would parents be comfortable in sending elementary students that far from town when they’ve been accustomed to their children being located in the center of town for decades?
While I’m pretty certain of the answers to those questions, those are things our patrons have to contemplate for themselves.
Ultimately, as mentioned early in this article, we are going to have to prepare for the reorganization of the Decorah and North Winneshiek districts. That will require us to make some important decisions for the long-term best interests of our young people for many years into the future. We also must remember, this isn’t only about education, but is also about the long-term economic development of Decorah.
We already have a high-achieving school district. But excellent facilities are a key element in attracting young families, more and more of whom can work from home and are afforded the opportunity to live wherever they wish. Top-notch achievement and facilities work hand-in-hand to attract these young families, who are essential to the long-range viability of any community.
It’s my hope you’ve found this information valuable and it’s helped to clarify some of the thought processes that have driven our facilities discussions over the past several years. I plan to continue to engage in similar articles monthly, addressing other important matters district-wide.
I’m optimistic you’ll continue to peruse these articles and that they will give greater insight into the workings of the Decorah Schools.