A single bathroom serves the kindergarten wing at Prairie Grove Elementary School.
The 90-plus kindergartens often must travel down the hallway through the day to access stalls in other parts of the building, Prairie Grove School District 46 Superintendent John Bute said during a recent tour of the building.
Bute was making the pitch to parents and community members ahead of a possible referendum this November, which could ask for millions of dollars to build an addition at the shared Prairie Grove elementary and middle school campus.
The district currently is collecting responses from surveys mailed to registered voters in Prairie Grove for two potential options that might be sent to voters, one that would cost $36 million and the other $26 million. The surveys are due by May 23. More tours of the school will be held 9 to 11 a.m. and 2 to 4 p.m. Saturday.
The more expensive option would add nine net classrooms across two new wings, one of which would house an early childhood learning center and the other for other grade-level classes. It also would include major renovations to the existing building and add a new main entrance road to the campus off of Valley View Drive.
The campus entrance currently is off Route 176.
The other option at $26 million would defer plans for the grade-level wing, and would scrap plans for a separate bus driveway, but would include the rest of the project. Under both plans, parts of the current building would be demolished and the gym would get a new facade.
Taxpayers would pay off the bonds over 20 years, with the more expensive plan costing $791 annually in additional property taxes for a home worth $242,000 and $1,312 for a home worth $390,000. The less expensive plan would raise taxes by $564 and $935 annual for those homes, respectively.
This is not the first time in recent years the district has weighed expansion projects.
When the Woodlore Estates subdivision was announced, most of which is in the school district, the district considered several options which would have cost up to $60 million. Just to fully renovate the older portions of the school would cost $13 million, Bute said.
Results of the community survey will be discussed at a committee meeting on May 25, and the school board plans to make a decision sometime in June or July on which bond question – if any – to choose, Bute said.
Among the most significant are a lack of air conditioning; safety concerns due to older, crumbing bricks; and traffic along busy Route 176, Bute said.
The goal also is to address issues with the facility that will only be exacerbated by increasing enrollment, Bute said.
One of the stops on Bute’s tours last week was what should have been the bright, colorful library, which was converted into two classrooms to meet increased enrollment.
So far 90 kindergartners have registered for the 2022-23 school year, a higher number than the school saw this time last year, Bute said. This year’s total kindergarten enrollment was 92.
In addition, the district’s preschool program for next year already is full and the district has created a waiting list, Bute said. The district won’t increase the number of seats without new classroom space.
The district commissioned a demographics study after Woodlore Estates was approved, Bute said. The district’s enrollment was 11% higher this school year than that study projected. If that trend continues, the district would have just more than 800 students for the next school year.
“It needs a facelift,” Bute said of the older school wings. “Thank goodness we have excellent teachers who make it work. It’s great to have more students but also a concern because we have to put them somewhere, make some adjustments.”
The current campus facility includes sections built at seven different times, with the oldest portion dating back to 1957, according to a staff presentation. Another seven-classroom wing is currently under construction and was conceived of as the first phase of an overall campus expansion.
Bute said the comments he’d gotten from the community, including the resident task force district created for the project, had been mostly positive.
“Are there concerns? Always,” Bute said. “Anytime you’re talking about a tax increase, there are issues. But we think we’ve made this plan as lean as possible and can still achieve our goals.”
During a recent school board meeting, board Vice President Steve Sebastian expressed some concerns about the design proposals. He wondered how the added space would affect foot traffic throughout the building and whether the aesthetic choices, including full glass walls and custom brick around the new wings, were worth the extra cost.
“I get that this looks really good in the flyer,” Sebastian said. “But we should try to avoid going for a large referendum and failing.”
Sebastian said his preference would be to “pay for space” to ensure the district didn’t need to pursue more additions or classroom trailers within a decade.
Kristen Maguire, a mother of two and co-president of the district’s parent-teacher organization along with Amanda Costa, said parents recognized the need for new school facilities.
“It’s an older school,” Maguire said. “There’s multiple areas added on, so there’s just a lack of congruency among all the different wings.”
The main issue that concerned parents, Maguire said, was the lack of space within classrooms.
“The way children are educated and learn is much different than when I was in school,” Maguire said. “It’s not just about having four walls anymore. The physical spaces are not conducive or up to date with today’s learning necessities and challenges.”
The parent-teacher organization is not directly involved in the expansion project, but as an organization released a statement saying its members “support what’s in the best interest of Prairie Grove School.
“We would support any improvements to the school, as every child in our community deserves the best environment in which to receive a positive educational experience,” the group said in the statement.