By Kerri Rempp Sioux County Schools PIO
Site and layout plans for a new Harrison Elementary School that include a second gym were approved by the Sioux County School Board Feb. 15. The plan carries an estimated price tag of $4.6 million, which will be paid for through an increased levy for seven years if the project moves forward.
The board will now await construction drawings, a process that will likely take three to four months. Once those are prepared, bids will be let with a goal of beginning construction this summer to have the school ready for occupancy in the fall of 2023. The district began discussing its options last June, when it rejected a proposal to purchase a small cabin for placement at the elementary school to solve ongoing space issues in the building in favor of an option that would address both space and ADA issues.
Three members of the public were appointed to serve on a steering committee with school board members to review site and layout plans prior to this week’s meeting. The steering committee reviewed a total of six plans, with the least expensive being the construction of classrooms only at $3.2 million.
Two of the citizen members on the committee, Jess Holmgren and Dwayne Gremm, voiced opposition to the plan selected, saying elementary students can use the high school gym. Keith Zapka supported the plan, saying a tour of the high school while students were in class indicates that the gym is used by those students enough to make scheduling difficult if elementary students are added to the equation.
In addition to sports practices and tournaments, the second gym was presented to the public in December as a place for elementary students to eat lunch, have P.E. and other classroom activities and indoor recess in times of inclement weather. It would also be available to members of the community for physical fitness, meetings and gatherings.
Public comment on the construction project was split about evenly between those who support the site plan and layout approved by the board and those who oppose that alternative.
Monte Adams, who has held various positions with the school district, introduced himself as being better known as “Whitney’s Dad.” Their family’s experience with Down Syndrome has presented unique challenges, he said, and Sioux County staff and students have helped them meet those. Whitney does have balance and reflex challenges, and a new ADA-compliant facility will prevent slips, trips and falls and keep her education on track.
An inclusive environment, including for lunch, music, recess and physical education, has made his daughter’s life better, Adams said, and teaches other students compassion and understanding. It’s disappointing that there has been discussion within the community of separating disabled students, he said, referring to earlier discussions about putting classes with disabled students in a mobile classroom separate from the rest of the elementary.
“This is unacceptable,” he said.
“We know that ADA-IDEA-504 is necessary,” said opponent Kathy Griesse. “Not one person I know disagrees with that.”
However, she continued, the group of taxpayers she represented believes the public was blindsided and their input marginalized. The high school is not being used to its full capacity, she insisted, and encouraged the district to complete a second feasibility study to determine how to best use that building. She presented the board with an informal petition with 260 signatures of resident and non-resident landowners asking the board to halt all progress on the project and start over.
According to the 2020 Census, the population of Sioux County is 1,135.
John Gieser echoed the sentiment that no one is against constructing ADA classrooms.
“It’s the extra gym. The extra gym will not educate, and it will not bring one kid to this school,” he said.
Ed Hodspodka disagreed. The gym was a focal point for his kids when they attended Sioux County Schools, and it’s where they learned discipline, teamwork and other interpersonal skills.
“All it takes is a class-action lawsuit, and you’ll learn how to spend money,” he said.
Jory Gieser cited district policy regarding the construction of new buildings, saying the district failed to take into account occupancy, enrollment and long-term maintenance when proceeding with their plans. Board policies regarding communication with the public were also violated, he contended.
“We do not feel like we were adequately supplied with information along the way,” he said.
Spike Jordan noted that no one is opposed to facilitating the education of any child with a disability, but agreed with Gieser that the board policies were not followed. He asked the district to pause the project to give the public confidence and said the urgency of the matter has been overstated.
The board has been notified that a wheelchair-bound student is expected to enroll in the district in 2023.
“This situation is the result of a can being kicked down the road for 32 years since the law was passed,” said Scott Schaeffer. As for concerns about enrollment brought up by the opposition, he said student numbers go up and down just like the market, and with the explosive growth in the Front Range of Colorado the district can’t predict what may happen in the future.
The elected school board is a well-balanced cross-section of the community, including agricultural landowners, said Mike Wickersham.
“You have to show the public and the state we are in the business of educating our kids to the best of our ability,” he said. If the district fails to do that, the state may someday change current law and close Sioux County schools, doubling taxes for landowners in the district.
A letter from Lora Andersen, read by Jessica Turbiville, said every student should feel empowered, and the district should do whatever it takes to fulfill its mission of creating a student-centered environment.
“Our focus should be on what we can do and not on what we should not do,” Andersen said in her letter.