Wednesday, October 22, 2014

OHS facility Challenges test district’s patience

By DOUG CARDER, Herald Senior Writer | 10/25/2013

[Editor’s note: The following is the second in a two-part series that focuses on the facility needs of Ottawa High School, the school district’s flagship building constructed in 1967, as well as facility challenges at other school buildings in the district.]   

Ryan Cobbs shouts to be heard over the din of the heating and cooling units in Ottawa High School’s auxiliary gym.

[Editor’s note: The following is the second in a two-part series that focuses on the facility needs of Ottawa High School, the school district’s flagship building constructed in 1967, as well as facility challenges at other school buildings in the district.]   

Ryan Cobbs shouts to be heard over the din of the heating and cooling units in Ottawa High School’s auxiliary gym.

The unit’s continuously running blowers — which sounded like four semi-truck engines suspended from the ceiling — made it difficult to hear the Ottawa High School principal, who was standing a mere 2 feet away.

Now try to imagine hearing a musical or theatrical production on the stage at one end of the gym, Cobbs said.

“This is what they meant to be a performing arts center when they added this stage here in 1991,” Cobbs said, first pointing to the stage and then at the units overhead. “Those things don’t get to be turned off. The humidity in our building condenses under the wood floors. To keep humidity down, those [blowers] have to stay on so we don’t have problems with the gym floors.

“If you try to have any type of play or musical performance on this stage, it’s going to be awful because you’re not going to hear it over that noise,” Cobbs said. “The acoustics are awful, and the lights and sound system are not great. And because we don’t have storage, the stage becomes a storage area.”

Wrestling mats are stacked in the stairwell leading down to the locker rooms, where the exposed plumbing struggles to generate enough hot water for the showers, Cobbs said. The facilities do not offer a designated room for referees and officials to shower and change, which is required under state guidelines, Cobbs said, so officials often have to wait for teams to clear out to use the locker room. And when playing host to a substate or other event involving multiple teams, some athletes have to change in classrooms because of a lack of locker room facilities, he said.

In the cafeteria, tables and 250 chairs are stacked along one wall, and a scissor lift is tucked into a corner, Cobbs said, because of a lack of storage space at the school, 1120 S. Ash St.

Cramped quarters also were evident in the administrative office space, where visitors have little to no space to sit. A lack of storage and lab space have proved a formula for challenge in the science classrooms, along with outdated lab stations, some dating to the building’s 1967 origin.

“We have a desperate need for storage space, in addition to separate classroom and lab space,” James Deane, OHS science teacher, said. “We also don’t have space to put any long-term lab projects, which really has a negative effect on the higher-level classes like advanced biology, upper level physics and college biology.”

Some science classrooms were designed in trapezoid shapes, which Cobbs said makes areas of the rooms unusable.

Students sometimes have to huddle around the gas and water outlets along a counter top at the back of Robin Blake’s science room, Cobbs said.

“That classroom is one of the smallest in the building,” he said. “To get 25 freshmen around an experiment [on the counter top in the back of the room] is an experiment in itself.”

Other needed improvements — identified by OHS staff and the school’s site council — include a better security system, a library media center and technology upgrades.

NEEDS IN EVERY BUILDING

The high school is not alone in its need for facility upgrades. Staff and site councils have put together lists of needs at the other school buildings in the district.

• Eugene Field Elementary School, 720 Tremont Ave. — The list of deficiencies includes restrooms, classroom space, counselor and support staff space, technology, office space, storage and air conditioning.

• Garfield Elementary School, 1213 S. College St. — Items needed at the elementary school included classroom space, technology upgrades, behavior support space and early childhood space.

• Lincoln Elementary School, 1102 N. Milner Road — The elementary school’s checklist includes early childhood space, behavior support space and technology upgrades.

• Ottawa Middle School, 1230 S. Ash St. — The middle school’s list includes replacing carpet, painting, new gym entrance and continued maintenance.

To address these district-wide needs, the school board and Jeanne Stroh, Ottawa superintendent, have launched a facilities upgrade initiative, based on the results of a community survey by ETC Institute that gauged public opinion about what renovations might win community support. The survey, delivered to the district in March by the Olathe-based research firm, showed 84 percent of respondents said they would support improvements to OHS, with 61 percent in favor of remodeling the high school.

Also in that survey of district patrons, 27 percent of respondents said they would support the remodeling of Eugene Field and building an addition to Garfield.

District voters last approved a bond issue in 2005. That $25.9 million bond issue paid for the construction of the new Lincoln Elementary School, as well as expansion of Garfield, improvements to the music area at the high school and technology upgrades throughout the district.

The lists that each building’s school principals and site councils have been putting together are expected to be reviewed by a committee of 22 people who will be charged with separating “the wants from the needs,” Stroh said, in addition to identifying facility needs that were not on the original lists. The committee, to be formed next month, will be comprised of parents, senior citizens, business leaders, city leaders, county leaders, staff, two school board members and other volunteers.

“I want to start with about 22 members, because my experience has been that at least a couple of members usually have to drop off the committee, for a variety of reasons,” Stroh said. “I would like the committee to stay between 15 to 20 members.

“Just because we list something [on a needs list], that doesn’t necessarily mean it ultimately will be on the final list,” Stroh said. “It will be left to the committee to determine what items are on the final list for all the schools.”

Stroh has put together a timeline, which has been approved by the school board, for launching a campaign to inform the public of the district’s facility needs.

“Safety and security for all schools is at the top of the list,” Stroh said. “Technology [upgrades] also is a priority. Every building has technology needs.”

COMMUNITY INVOLVEMENT

The community-engagement campaign is expected to culminate with a possible bond issue to be put before voters in the November 2014 general election to help pay for improvements identified by the committee, though Stroh said school officials do not have a preconceived list of improvements, what they will cost and how they will be funded. The improvements, and timeline for making those upgrades, will be left to the committee, she said, and the school board, district administrators and staff are prepared to honor the committee’s decisions.

“We want to do what is best for our kids, whether they are little, or middle or high school kids,” Stroh said. “We want kids to stay in Ottawa when they grow up. Providing them with the best education possible and great facilities is a good way to do that, I think.”

Cobbs is hopeful some of the improvements needed at the high school will be on the committee’s final list, he said.

“I understand the issues with Eugene Field, but the high school is really the flagship building of our district,” Cobbs said. “The high school is one of the schools that helps people make the decision about whether they are going to move to the community or not.”

Cobbs is not in favor of building a new high school, he said, though he pointed out the other Frontier League schools have had new high schools built within the past 20 years or so.

“I think some renovations in this building will catapult us past some of those [newer] buildings in the league,” he said.

Stroh agreed with Cobbs that renovating the high school would be a better option than building a new school.

“The high school is centrally located [to sports fields and other facilities], and there’s plenty of space to remodel and do what we need to do on that property,” she said.

Stroh is eager to see what facility priorities the 22-member committee establishes, she said.

“I think this is going to be very good for the district,” Stroh said.

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