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Growing enrollment = shrinking space

NORTH LIBERTY— North Bend Elementary is nearly full with almost every available space being used as classrooms. Principal Brenda Parker and some of her staff gave the Clear Creek Amana (CCA) School Board of Directors a guided tour Wednesday, Jan. 11, to show first-hand how the school, which opened in 2008, is already bursting at the seams. The school had 173 students in its first year and has 360 now. With more housing developments in the North Bend neighborhood, Parker and the board expect that number to continue to increase.
The Board met in a special work session to discuss how best to deal with continued enrollment growth in the district, particularly on the east end. However, Clear Creek Elementary in Oxford is also at capacity, and the middle school is also in need of attention as waves of students flow in from the elementary schools.
Among several options under consideration is to move the fifth grade students from North Bend and Oxford to Amana Elementary, which has open rooms available. In North Bend’s case however, such a move would not be the end-all, be-all solution. Parker explained she has 43 fifth graders this year, 53 next year and 59 after that. But, she is expecting 75-80 incoming kindergartners, which offsets any gains realized from moving the older students. Moving the fifth graders would only open two rooms at North Bend and three at Oxford. The district would also need to purchase at least one more bus, and there are questions about how much time the students would have to spend on the bus.
To illustrate ways the school staff have found creative ways to solve overcrowding, Parker showed the board members a space in the library which was converted into a classroom for first graders, a former teacher’s work room and lounge that now holds 23 fourth and fifth grade students, a small conference room where teachers now crowd together for lunch and to do prep work and a former music practice room which now holds a copier.
One option for gaining additional classroom space involves placing partitions in two commons areas. Parker showed how the rooms could be configured leaving corridors open to adjacent classrooms and exits. Basic panels would cost around $3,000, and panels with electrical capacity run in the neighborhood of $5,000. Electricians would need to extend wiring to the partitions at an as yet unspecified cost. The district has some surplus furniture such as desks and chairs.
A downside is the potential for frequent disruptions in the open-air rooms from nearby rooms and traffic in the corridors. Parker stressed it could only be a temporary solution. She said she will need one more room for sure next school year and at least one more the year after. In addition, the pre-kindergarten students would still have to be off-site for lack of space.
Amana Elementary principal Ben Macumber said he has the potential for nine open rooms; however, they do not have air conditioning. Additional support staff– kitchen and janitorial, for example– would need to be hired as well.
Affected students would have to transition two years in a row: once from their elementary to Amana for one year, and then on to the middle school in Tiffin.
“Some (kids) do adjust well, some don’t,” Parker said about such a transition.
Board president Eileen Schmidt pointed out that work at North Bend, such as new classrooms, does not relieve the space crunch at Oxford. Clear Creek Elementary principal Dan Dvorak agreed.
“Right now, our building is full and we don’t have any rooms we can re-purpose.” Dvorak added if additional class sections are necessary, he would have to bring in portable classrooms to hold them. “Its kind-of a crap shoot,” Dvorak said about enrollment projections and space needs, “because you just don’t know.”
“There’s no room at the inn,” board member Aimee Pitlick sighed.
The proposed six-room addition to North Bend would max-out the structure at 500-550 students according to Keith Johnk of Shive-Hattery. Johnk said the kitchen and cafeteria capacity dictates how much the school can be expanded. As it is, to build the pod, the geothermal field would need to be expanded. Beyond that however, “everything else struggles,” said Johnk.
High School principal Mark Moody suggested building the wing at North Bend and moving all of the fifth graders to Amana. “Two options, but it solves two problems,” Moody said. Superintendent Denise Schares agreed that the ultimate solution will probably be a combination of options.
The board moved onto other options discussed in January’s enrollment growth brainstorm and planning session. The directors agreed not to consider changing attendance area boundaries. A proposal to turn Amana Elementary into a magnet school for arts and/or sciences was briefly discussed, with Macumber explaining specific students would attend the facility rather than just those in the attendance area. However, there are no guarantees of how many interested students there would be. He also said the school could conceivably be configured for K-5 or even K-8, taking some of the load off of the middle school, which will have its own space issues in the coming years as well.
Another option proposed moving fifth graders to the West Campus building, currently home to the district’s Transitional Program for special needs adults between the ages of 18 and 21. The building has four rooms, but each is only 500 square feet, small by contemporary classroom guidelines. Johnk and CCA construction manager Ray Willoughby said there is no way to move the walls, and any expansion efforts would involve major construction. For the effort and expense however, “you wouldn’t get much out of it,” Johnk said. “We could maybe knock a hole in a wall and expand one room.” Overall, there would be two rooms the fifth graders could use.
Due to the lack of space in the building, not all fifth graders could be accommodated full-time in the West Campus structure. Middle school principal Brad Fox offered to squeeze in the fifth graders, saying he would not use West Campus. If the building was to be used, he recommended moving the Transition students to Amana Elementary.
“We have 370 (students) now. Three fifth grade classes could fit, but there would be a lot of other curve balls though,” Fox said. Such a move would cause major disruptions to art, music and PE classes. The special education teachers would lose their individual classrooms and have to move into offices. “It’d be a pain, but we can make it work.” Fox added the Middle School is also still adding students, five of which started since the Christmas break.
The district has a five-year plan to renovate and expand the middle school in a project with an estimated price tag of more than $17 million. Adding the wing to North Bend carries a $2.8 million cost. If the board pursues a revenue bond, they would have $2.4 million to work with, the balance for the North Bend pod would likely come from Physical Plant and Equipment Levy (PPEL) money. A school revenue bond is paid for with sales tax money exclusively and does not affect the property tax levy. Thus, it does not require voter approval.
Moody made a passionate statement about the Transition students, pleading for them to remain where they are. During the school day, the students help with basic tasks in the high school while that help them develop independent living skills. Moody also indicated having the Transition students in the same facility with 50 fifth graders would not be a good situation. “It may be too difficult for them (the Transition students) to handle,” he said.
The board will take up the discussion again Wednesday, Jan. 18, during the regular monthly work session. Before adjourning, Parker made a final plea.
“Our teachers and kids have done a tremendous job adjusting. Remember what’s best for our kids. We’re cramped already and it’s going to continue.”