District looking at bond issue, possibly closing a school and redrawing boundaries

File photo of school board meeting.

By Adam Strunk, Newton Now

In less than a month, the Newton school district could set a date for a $38 million to $71 million bond issue vote and decide to close Walton Rural Life Center.
A number of big story lines emerged at a special Newton School Board meeting on Monday night, which was called to discuss the district’s newly completed comprehensive plan. Part of that plan included facilities, and, to do the kind of work envisioned in the plan, it’s going to take a bond.

Newton Superintendent Deborah Hamm floated the idea of using a bond issue to build a new elementary school, significantly renovate the high school and add on additional security measures on other district buildings.

According to numbers given at the meeting, the school district has $35 million in outstanding bond debt, which is set to expire in 10 years and which it pays $3 million in principal on annually.

The first option would include building a new K-8 grade school at $30 million, high school renovations, which would include a tornado safe room/gym for $37.9 million, and safety and technology improvements for a total of $71 million.

The second through fifth options also included the high school renovations.

“There was a small group of people, but that feeling was that’s the greatest need in the district,” Hamm said of feedback during the comprehensive planning process.

Options two and three, which come in at $62 million and $60 million respectively, appear as if they could be the most contentious.

The options would build an additional K-4 or K-5 school, which would have room for a potential for 600 students. They would also close Walton Rural Life Center but preserve the project-based learning program. The school has a full enrollment of around 200 students regularly but has received the least amount of updating to the building in past years, according to Newton Assistant Superintendent Russell Miller. He said the district faces a decision on what it should do about the building.

A large contingent of Walton parents and educators attended the meeting.

Walton Principal Jason Chalashtari asked Hamm at the meeting if Walton should close, would the district preserve its project-based learning system.

Hamm said she did support the system and moving it, but it would take commitment of the staff and parents to make the program continue in the future.

“What I don’t support at this point is the fact that Walton doesn’t have the resources it needs to have as our other elementary schools have,” Hamm said.
Board member Renee Erickson then made a statement in favor of keeping the Walton school, saying despite the building having the worst resources, it still has regularly performed the best out of the school district.

“To say those kids don’t have great resources they have a specific ability and a specific desire to achieve,” she said. “That’s what makes Walton great. It’s not the climate of the building but the culture of the staff and community that makes Walton successful. Whatever changes, that needs to stay the same, and that’s what I support.”

Board member Barb Bunting responded in saying she didn’t know if Walton had always outperformed other buildings. Bunting also said the district had long put facilities on a back burner and perhaps now would be a time for a change.

Bond option four would renovate and expand Walton as opposed to building a new school with a cost of $55.9 million.

Option five would renovate the high school for $38 million in the first vote and then include another bond vote in 2018 for $35 million to pay for a new grade school and school upgrades.

During the meeting, the school board then approved requesting proposals from a demographer to look at the distribution of people in the district. The idea would be to gain information to help change boundary lines to evenly distribute students to each school. The motion passed 5-1 with Erickson voting against.

Board President Dick Koontz said that at the next board meeting, the board would look at hiring a demographer, possibly select a bond option and then set a date for a bond vote, which could come as early as May.
Voters then would be able to vote in favor or against the bond.

Below is an image explaining the costs and options presented:

Image of financing document presented to Newton School Board.