Lost in the crowd

A storage closet now used for small group instruction at Westchester Elementary.

“I view our educational system as somewhat of a three-legged stool,” Wallace Ward, Kirkwood resident, said at the KSD Board of Education meeting Feb. 10. “It’s made up of families, administrators and our buildings. Right now one leg of that stool is broken. That’s our buildings.”

The KSD Board of Education approved language to place the “Green Option” on the April 7 ballot as Proposition S Jan. 13. The $70 million plan to address enrollment growth in KSD would consist of several construction projects across the district, including a new gym and library at Tillman Elementary, secure entrances at KECC, North Glendale Elementary and KHS, seven new classrooms at KHS, four new classrooms at Nipher Middle School, conversion of the Administrative Services Center to classrooms for North Kirkwood Middle School and renovation of the maintenance center to provide new administrative offices. 

Most notably, Prop S contains plans for a project that the cheaper, $45 million “Blue Option” did not include: construction of a new elementary school at the district-owned property near Lindeman Road.

“We’ve been experiencing enrollment growth for the last 12 years, and we’re out of space,” Mike Romay, KSD chief financial officer, said. “We have a need in the school district to accommodate our growing enrollment with our kids.”

The projects proposed by Prop S will be funded by a bond issue, where bonds are issued to investors and paid off over time, similar to a mortgage on a house. According to Romay, if Prop S passes, KSD would receive all the necessary funds within a few months after the April election. After completing construction, they would pay off the bonds over a course of up to 20 years.

“Originally, when the projections were done back in the fall we were estimating 3% [interest],” Romay said. “Now the bonds have dropped, and they continue to drop. Right now we’re estimating 1.65%. The opportunity is now because the only general obligation bond debt that we currently have is from 2010, and those bonds will be paid off in the next couple of years.”

Over the past 10 years, KSD enrollment has increased by 756 total students. According to an enrollment growth projection study which was presented to the KSD Board of Education August 2019, over the course of the next five years, in-district enrollment is expected to increase by 13%, which is more than 500 students.

Due to the district-wide enrollment growth, Kirkwood elementary schools face overcrowding, requiring them to utilize spaces not designed for education such as storage closets and stairwells, according to Russ Leary, KSD director of facilities. Since beginning the position September 2019, Leary said he has witnessed these situations first hand.

There’s an overflow, and it’s continuously happening. We don’t see that disappearing any time soon.”

— Russ Leary, KSD director of facilities

“I see now walking through the buildings students out in hallways, under stairways, [teachers] call the maintenance department [asking] ‘Can we change this room into two rooms?’” Leary said. “All of that added up to the district is the enrollment growth that we’re talking about. There’s an overflow, and it’s continuously happening. We don’t see that disappearing any time soon.”

Though North Glendale Elementary currently has the highest enrollment of the elementary schools at 605 total students, Keysor and Westchester have also been overwhelmed by recent growth. Dr. Robert Ricker, Westchester Elementary principal, said in his four years at the school, enrollment has grown by nearly 70 students. Despite the ideal enrollment of the school being around 450 students, Westchester currently enrolls 538. Ricker said because of this, several spaces have been sacrificed and adapted for educational purposes.

“Three of the four years that I’ve been at Westchester we haven’t even had a teacher’s lounge,” Ricker said. “Or an area for our teacher’s assistants to go and teach small groups or have an area for them to just relax on their time away from students. We’re utilizing every space possible, and we’ve had to get very creative on how we use our spaces to instruct our kids.”

To maximize classroom space, Westchester has a building-wide policy that every student’s backpack and coat stays in the hallway. In addition, Ricker said students with additional academic need are often the ones being moved to unconventional spaces that can be distracting.

“Right now our English Language Learner teacher is working in a storage closet. She is working in a space that has a concrete floor, exposed wire, we don’t have a ceiling in there.”

— Dr. Robert Ricker, Westchester Elementary principal

“Right now our English Language Learner teacher is working in a storage closet,” Ricker said. “She is working in a space that has a concrete floor, exposed wire, we don’t have a ceiling in there. We have kids working in hallways or nooks and crannies to get intervention. Some of our kids that have the highest need academically are working in spaces that aren’t even really learning spaces, so you can only imagine how distractible that can be.”

Despite the demand for more educational space across the district, Prop S was not universally supported by the KSD Board of Education, as board members Julie Backer and Angie Bernardi voted against placing the “Green Option” on the April ballot. Citing low birth rate data as well as unanswered questions surrounding the proposal, Bernardi expressed concerns in a statement at the KSD Board of Education meeting Jan. 6.

“We should base this vital decision that will affect our children and our community for years to come on facts, information and policy, not guesswork, opinion and wishful thinking,” Bernardi said. “Rather than rush this proposal through for an April bond levy, I suggest we consider the formulation of a plan that provides for the educational welfare of all of our students, both for now and the future, that has answered the community’s concerns.”

Several Kirkwood community members have also spoken out against Prop S. A citizens group “Tax Fairly” has been created in opposition of Prop S, detailing potential financial repercussions as well as concerns about water runoff in Sugar Creek Valley on their website. Justin Ellis, Kirkwood resident, said he believes a new elementary school is unnecessary.

“We wish that the School Board would have given the voters the opportunity to make their own mind up, and allow them to choose that they think the Blue Option was the correct option,” Ellis said at the KSD Board of Education meeting Feb. 10. “But [they] have not.”

If Prop S fails in April, redistricting will occur regardless, according to the KSD website. Hallways and closets will continue to be used as educational spaces for small groups, and music and art rooms at the elementary level could potentially lose their spaces in favor of more classrooms. Increasing class size would be a last resort option.

“I think [Prop S is] good for the district, it’s good for the long-term planning of the elementaries especially,” Ricker said. “Instead of the school district thinking creatively, it’s gonna provide kids the opportunity to think creatively because we will have extra space for them to explore new things, new endeavors.”