School issues will highlight local ballots – Meeker

Meeker’s $24M initiative would build new elementary, fund improvements

MEEKER — Standing outside Meeker Elementary School on a bright blue-sky day, Jason Hightower looked up admiringly at the nearly 70-year-old building.
“It’s beautiful, it’s gorgeous,” said Hightower of the sandstone structure built in 1939.
Hightower has been principal of the elementary school for the past two years. The school has served the community well for many years, he said. But, because of its age, the building has serious deficiencies.
And it’s time for a change, he said.
“I think we have a compelling case,” Hightower said of the district’s $24 million proposal to build a new elementary school and make improvements to the existing middle school and high school.
From the size of the classrooms at the elementary school to a leaking roof to asbestos in the walls to poor ventilation to water and plumbing problems, the building has outlived its usefulness, Hightower said.
“The basement floor is sinking and cracking because of water damage,” he said. “We can’t use the basement for classrooms, because of the water leak problem, and there is no escape in event of a fire.”
The asbestos in the elementary school has been encapsulated, meaning “it’s totally sealed and contained in the walls,” Hightower said. However, anytime a hole is put in a wall there is an extensive clean-up process that has to be followed.
“We have to use a special vacuum cleaner if we hang things on the wall and wipe down every surface,” Hightower said. “When we were installing a security system, they drilled holes in the walls, so we had to close the building for a month. We opened back up one week before school started. That’s why we can’t hang anything on the walls.”
Cramped quarters — and no room to expand — is another major problem with the current elementary school.
“We can’t use the gym in the middle of the day for two hours (because lunch is served there), and we frequently have to use the hallways now for kids to meet in small groups,” Hightower said. “In the new design, the gym would be separate from the cafeteria. That will give more time to have classes. We could have lunch and PE going on at the same time.”
The proposed new elementary school would be significantly bigger than the existing building, Hightower said.
“Each one of the (new) classrooms would have way more room,” he said. “The size of the proposed new classrooms is 850 square feet. The size of the current classrooms is 500 square feet. It’s not just the number of students in a building, but the number of kids in the classroom.”
The proposed new school, which would be nestled into a hill east of the recreation center and north of the high school football field, would accommodate 400 to 500 students, Hightower said.
“We’re pushing 400 now,” he said. “We have 47 new students who weren’t here last year.”
And the new building would be expandable, if more space was needed.
“We have some wiggle room to adjust with this floor plan,” said Meeker School Board President Mary Strang. “We have that flexibility.”
The need for more space is why the district bought two modular units, with the help of energy companies Conoco-Phillips, EnCana and Williams, which donated $20,000 each. The modulars arrived in August and were placed on the southeast corner of the grade school’s lawn.
Because of the property tax impact on energy companies, they will pay 80 percent of the debt retirement on the proposed school bond issue.
Previously, because of lack of space at the elementary school, music and art classes were held across the street at Richards Hall, which is part of the Saint James’ Episcopal Church.
“With the addition of the modulars, music and art classes have been moved back into the school building,” Strang said. “You need to have everything under one roof.”
The size of the classrooms in the modulars is bigger than the rooms in the existing grade school building, but the modular classrooms are smaller than what the classrooms would be in the new building.
The modulars are seen as temporary fix, at least for now.
“We won’t install plumbing in the modulars, unless the bond issue fails,” Hightower said. “If the bond issue passes, once the new school is built (in 2010), the modular classrooms will be removed. We will take them off the current site and we’ll either use them for storage, or we’ll remodel them for faculty housing. It’s hasn’t been decided yet. That’s why we decided to purchase rather than lease them, so we can use them for other purposes.”
Each of the modular units cost $70,000 to buy and outfit for classroom use.
“It takes a lot (of money) to make them a classroom, not just a room,” Hightower aid.
Stanley Crawford is uniquely familiar with the ins and outs of Meeker Elementary School. He attended grade school there, and now he is the head custodian. He’s well aware of the building’s shortcomings.
“The plumbing is a nightmare,” Crawford said. “Every day there’s a toilet or two that gets plugged. It’s just old plumbing, and some rooms have hot water, some don’t.
“And the building has poor ventilation,” Crawford added. “Whenever I turn the heat on for winter, kids start getting sick.”
Crawford said the maintenance staff has done everything it can to deal with the building’s age-related problems.
“Every year we try to paint things and keep up as best we can,” he said.
But it is a losing battle. Take the building’s roof, for example, Hightower said.
“Last year, we had a serious problem with the roof, and water leaking into the classrooms,” Hightower said. “The basement floor is sinking and cracking, because of water damage. Water seeps down the walls. Whatever is done with the building, the roof will have to be addressed.”
The time has come, said Strang, the Meeker school board president, to move forward with a new elementary school that can better meet the needs of students.
“It’s time to join the 21st century,” Strang said, “and have a positive environment for kids.”