What I’m about to write is so blatantly obvious, I will almost come across as an idiot for repeating it. Regardless, I’m going to state it anyway (besides I’ve been called a lot worse than an idiot).
As just about everyone in the state and entire Midwest region knows by now, Decorah has one of the most respected, even admired, school systems in existence. And that’s not just my idiotic opinion. It’s been stated repeatedly by experts who know what they’re talking about when it comes to quality school districts.
Over the past decade or three, Decorah Community Schools have received so many accolades, so much positive recognition and countless awards for the top-notch education provided Decorah students. If I took the time to list them all, it would fill up this entire column.
In recent years, Decorah has firmly established itself as one of the best all-around school districts in all of Iowa – regardless of the size of its enrollment.
Why is that? Simple: gifted and caring educators, outstanding facilities, tradition, consistent excellence in all activities from football to music to speech, an administration and school board that focus on and support things that truly matter, a staff that works tirelessly to maintain the high standards that have been established, parents who are determined to continue Decorah’s tradition of educational excellence and, perhaps most importantly, students who genuinely put forth the effort to take advantage of the countless opportunities presented them.
But in recent years, the District has had to deal with a deteriorating infrastructure despite these tough economic times. Amazingly, to the credit of all concerned, the seemingly impossible has been accomplished – at least a big chunk of it.
The senior high school received a massive makeover, a brand-new, state-of-the-art middle school was constructed and Carrie Lee elementary got a major facelift to bring it up to modern-day standards, but a major problem still exists: what to do with elementary-aged students.
While the Board and its Shareholders (the District’s advisory group) explored a plethora of options including utilizing North Winn School on either a short-term or permanent basis (the two districts will consolidate in 2019-20), updating the mechanical systems at John Cline and West Side elementary school, building a larger elementary facility on the John Cline site or finding a separate location, possibly on the outskirts of town, in the final analysis it was determined the aforementioned ideas were not economically feasible or were a logistical nightmare (i.e. busing kids to North Winn).
So the general consensus was the best investment of taxpayer money would be to build a new elementary school at the corner of Heivly Street and Claiborne Drive. The basic idea was to have a new schoolhouse for Pre-K through third grade students; converting Carrie Lee (now third and fourth grades) to a fourth and fifth grade facility and making the middle school (currently fifth through eighth grades) into a sixth through eighth grade center.
It was estimated the new school would cost around $13 million, but that amount continues to rise with the passage of time.
In order to follow through with that recommendation, the District offered the city $700,000 for the land at Heivly and Claiborne, but the city turned it down. In the meantime, the School District has asked Luther College about obtaining some land in the Anderson Prairie as a possible location for the school, but that proposal has been met with a luke-warm response – to say the least – and that brings us back to where we are today: at Square One.
However, it’s a problem that needs to be solved and, hopefully, that will happen sooner rather than later. On that note, and for the benefit of the entire community, the city should reconsider its decision and sell the land to the District. Why? Here are some good reasons:
• It would avoid wasteful spending on portable classrooms or the remodeling of North Winneshiek for short-term use.
• The construction of a new facility presents an opportunity to improve traffic flow, parking and pedestrian safety around both the elementary school and the high school.
• Traffic around the elementary school will be considerable wherever it’s located. This area is best suited to handle this volume of traffic.
• The location of a new facility near the existing high school provides many opportunities for operational savings, including efficient food service operations and staff sharing.
• Locating the elementary facility near the high school has curricular importance as well. There are many opportunities for interaction between high school and elementary students.
In addtion, the sale of the land would provide significant benefits to the city:
• A new elementary would help attract young families and new businesses to the community.
• The Park/Rec program would have access to an additional, full-size gym located across the street from its office.
• The project would improve the appearance of one of the most visible areas of the community.
“The city property has long been a top site for a new Early Childhood through Grade 3 facility,” said Superintendent Mike Haluska. “Just as synergies exist with Luther College on the Anderson Prairie property, the same can be said for having the new elementary facility in close approximation to the High School.
“The site also allows the continuation of our “walking school bus” that has existed for several years now. All told, the District looks forward to continued discussion with the city of Decorah regarding this property.”
Continuing that discussion sounds promising.
The city, to its credit, looked at the situation long and hard before turning down the District’s proposal. After all, that’s a prime piece of real estate. In the final analysis, however, isn’t a new school located in a perfect spot more important than trying to find a new location for a softball diamond? I know it’s more complex than that, but you get the point. The new school should be a priority for our community.
The city needs to step up to the plate and do the right thing.