Teachers and students in Manhattan School District 114 are in a serious space crunch.
Just walk around the district’s buildings and the challenges are evident.
The schools have converted its libraries, auditorium stages and even a teachers’ lounge into classrooms because there are simply too many students in too little space.
At Manhattan Junior High School, Katie Duff’s STEM class is housed near the school’s auditorium in a room not ideal for teaching her science lessons. When district officials visited her classroom recently, she told them about the limitations of the room and how she wished she had basic tools for her students to apply what they learn.
“The things I could do,” Duff said.
Still, she said her students do well enough with what they have.
But district officials worry about the ramifications of a lack of space for students, as District 114 has seen a 44% increase in its student population since 2013.
District 114 Superintendent Russell Ragon said when he came took over in 2013, there were fewer than 1,300 students in the district. Now, there are more than 1,800, with projections for more growth in the coming years.
That is why on the June 28 primary election ballot, residents will be asked to vote to allow the district to bond, or essentially borrow, up to $85 million to construct a fourth school building. Officials said the money would only be able to be used on the construction and equipping of a new building, and any left over money would likely be used to pay off the debt.
The district has already received approval from the state legislature to bond for the funds, a necessary step because the maximum amount is more than what it would usually be allowed to borrow.
Ragon said if voters approve of the bonds, it won’t change the district’s property tax rate. That doesn’t necessarily mean property owners won’t see their tax bill go up, since other government bodies collect property taxes and assessed property values tend to increase every year.
Still, Ragon said the district is trying to be efficient with the money and build enough extra space to accommodate what students and staff need now.
Each of the district’s three schools house about 100 to 150 more students than they were built for, officials said. The district is adding as many as 11 modular units to its existing buildings.
Kindergarten class sizes are reaching around 25 students each, which Ragon said is not ideal to give students the individual attention they need.
“They’ll feel the effects exponentially in the next couple of years if we don’t do something in regards to spacing,” Ragon said.
Plus some parents are noticing how the space crunch is affecting their children. For instance, they don’t like the inconvenience of their kids not being able to use their school libraries because another class is using the room.
“The one thing that they want back the most is the school libraries,” said Christine Ruddy, the district’s director of human resources, communications and professional development. “The library as they know it has been taken away.”
The new building is planned for a site next door to the existing junior high school. It will be the district’s new junior high school and will house sixth through eighth-grade students.
With a new building, Wilson Creek Elementary would then have the district’s pre-kindergarten through first grade students and Anna McDonald would have second through third-grade students. The existing junior high school would then house fourth and fifth graders.
If the bonds are approved, officials plan for construction to start later this year on the new building in hopes of likely opening its doors for the 2024-25 school year.
The district will hold public forums for residents to learn more about the referendum on May 18, May 25, June 1 and June 15. All will be held at 6:30 p.m. at Wilson Creek Elementary School, located at 25440 S. Gougar Road. in Manhattan.