Superintendent Dr. Steve Weinhold counted raised hands in Central Elementary’s cafeteria Tuesday night.
Twenty-four hands raised in favor of building another kindergarten through fifth-grade center, another 24 for constructing a sixth-grade center and 22 more for building a new elementary school.
More than 30 members of the community and the Union R-XI School District gathered to brainstorm solutions to the district’s overcrowding problems. Many solutions were suggested, but the answer may still be a ways off.
“Tonight is more about the big picture,” Weinhold said. “We’re overcrowded in Union and we are functional . . . but we can’t stay like this forever.”
The school district has been looking to crack the code on the overcrowding at the elementary schools for almost three years.
The issue led to the installation of two large modular units at Central Elementary as student “bubbles,” or enrollment spikes hit the school. The units are used as a kindergarten center.
Now, nearly every school in the district is at capacity or nearing it. While the issue first became apparent at Central Elementary, Clark-Vitt and Beaufort are now also at full capacity.
“We’re using every classroom at Beaufort and we’re using every classroom at Clark-Vitt,” Weinhold said. “This (Central) building wasn’t big enough for all of our kids and we’re crowded (everywhere).”
Weinhold filled a whiteboard as community members offered different options and ideas that included a new elementary school near East Central College, where the district owns 16.2 acres of land, a sixth grade or early childhood center, grade reconfiguration and more. Many options the district had heard before, or are currently considering.
The meeting was scheduled to gather opinions from the community; whether it be to build, expand or reconfigure — or a combination of solutions.
The hand-picked group was made up of administrators, teachers, parents, community members and Union R-XI employees who have children currently in the district.
Kelly Brown has a child in second grade at Central Elementary. She said she is concerned about the overcrowding issues and wants there to be more talk about how the plans would affect students. She said it’s important students get to stay in one building for an extended amount of time.
Another mother, Holly Julius, who has two children at Beaufort Elementary said the overcrowding is an issue that affects her children’s future and current education
“They’re doing some forward thinking and know that there is an issue,”Julius said. “It’s encouraging that they’re asking for input before important decisions are going to be made.”
Steve Campbell, a director at Scenic Regional Library, could not attend but submitted a letter urging the school district to raise its operation tax levy. He wrote that quality education costs money and that Union shouldn’t shy away from asking for more from taxpayers.
“There is ample research illustrating the strong correlation between classroom size and student achievement,” Campbell wrote. “The school district must increase its bonding capacity to build larger facilities and ask voters for an increase in its operating levy.”
The topic of how the school might pay for any sort of plan going forward was briefly covered at the meeting when Weinhold presented information on the current levy and future bond opportunities.
In 2003, the district faced similar overcrowding issues at the high school, where the number of students caused multiple teachers to hold classes in hallways using storage carts for their classroom materials.
The high school was expanded through Prop 2, an $11.25 million bond that added onto the high school to alleviate the overcrowding.
At the meeting, Weinhold presented two no-tax increase bond issues that will be available to the school in upcoming elections. In April 2018 a $20 million bond is available and in April 2019 the district has a $23 million bonding capacity.
According to the district’s data, Union R-XI has the lowest school district operating levy in the county.
The second facilities meeting will be held in September, where the group will further discuss possibilities. Weinhold said building a time line, searching for an architect and putting out requests for qualifications will come next in the process.
School board president Virgil Weideman asked that everyone who attended the meeting go out and ask their neighbors what they think is best. He stressed the importance of getting a full scope of what the community needs.