Replacing nearly 100-year-old Pipkin Middle School is the top priority of a task force that voted to recommend a $220 school bond issue in the spring. (Photo by Shannon Cay Bowers)

A $220 million school bond vote will be on April ballots if the Springfield Public Schools Board of Education follows the recommendation of a committee that for months has been tasked with examining and addressing the district’s greatest facility needs.

Among the top priorities are three schools north of Chestnut Street in need of replacement, a complete renovation of Pershing K-8 and districtwide safety upgrades.

After meeting Tuesday in cramped quarters at the Pipkin Middle School library, the task force came to agreements on a top-five list to present to the board. At the top of the list was leveling the nearly century-old building they held the decisive meeting in. 

In order of priority, the recommended projects (and estimated construction costs) are:

  • Building a new Pipkin Middle School, ideally on a new, more spacious site ($53 million).
  • Safety upgrades, including six new storm shelter-gymnasiums at Cowden, Holland, Mann, Pittman, Watkins and Wilder elementary schools; protective glass film on all first-floor glass windows and doors; door and roof access sensors; security cameras; and playground fencing ($37.3 million).
  • A “gutting” of Pershing K-8, with the possibility of converting it to a middle school and moving upwards of 170 elementary students to neighboring schools as part of the renovation. ($50.5 million).
  • A new Robberson Community School, built farther from Kearney Street on a southern portion of the campus ($31.7 million).
  • A new Reed Academy ($59.5 million).

$220 million bond would fall $12 million short of funding top five projects

The group favors asking for approval of a $220 million bond issue that will not change current tax rates after voters approved an 18-cent cent increase to the SPS debt service levy in 2019. That was a path initially put forward by the first iteration of the committee in 2018. Mike Brothers, one of several members who has served on both task forces, said keeping that promise not to raise taxes this time around will be pivotal in garnering support for extending the levy four or five years to pay for another round of projects. 

However, the estimated $232 million cost of the top five priorities runs $12 million more than what the committee will recommend the school board puts before voters with an April bond issue. That will likely lead to some difficult conversations among school board members, if some of the debates among task force members were any indication. 

SPS board members Steve Makoski, Shurita Thomas-Tate and Scott Crise served as non-voting liaisons for the task force. On Tuesday, board member Kelly Byrne also joined to observe the work of the group.

Jeff Wells, a civil engineer, said consideration should be given to closing Robberson, a northside year-round school the group toured in late July. Wells said it was in the worst shape of all the buildings he toured, and pointed out the current enrollment stands at about 170 students, well below the 350-student targeted capacity for the new building. Money targeted for Robberson, 1100 E. Kearney St., could be used elsewhere if current students were moved to other schools. 

Cheryl Clay, a community volunteer, pointed to Boyd Elementary, which was rebuilt with 2019 bond issue money. The North Springfield school, at 833 E Division St., is now a community draw rather than a burden, she said. Robberson students, she said, deserve that experience too. 

“There is a huge population of elementary children over in that area that I believe will come back, if they have a decent school to come back to,” Clay said. 

Bridget Dierks, a co-chair of the committee, said school closures are decisions for the school board to make. 

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Investment in safety prioritized

Melanie Donnell, a York Elementary School kindergarten teacher, said the safety measures included in the bond issue are going to be vital for children and school staff, and appealing to voters across the district. They include not only the storm shelters at the six elementary schools, but $2.5 million in shatter-resistant glass coverings across district buildings.

Task force member Jim Farrell, chief of the school police department, said he and other SPS officers took a product sample out to a shooting range and fired upon it with everything they had. The glass cracked but remained intact. After the mass killing at Sandy Hook Elementary School, in which the shooter entered through a window he had shot out, Farrell said stalling or eliminating that method of entry buys police precious time to respond.

Springfield Police Chief Paul Williams said the bond effort as a whole is a safety investment from his perspective. Building schools that students want to learn in, and giving children public education opportunities that begin in pre-K, as SPS has been developing, gets them on the right track and “keeps people out of my crosshairs in the future.”  

Task force co-chair David Hall (center) asks for a show of hands from task force members who on Tuesday prioritized Springfield Public Schools facility projects. (Photo by Cory Matteson)

‘The need is here, and the need is now’

Dierks thanked the task force members for working together to recommend the bond issue and prioritize the projects at the top of the list. She and fellow co-chair David Hall pointed out the initial sum of money approved in 2019 by voters ended up covering more projects than expected. Renovations to Hillcrest High School, a new York Elementary and two elementary storm shelter gymnasiums were built with savings from other projects that came in millions under budget. Citing current economic factors like inflation and interest rates, four of the 24 members voted in favor of pushing the vote back to a later election date than next spring. 

Developer Royce Reding said he was concerned about adding more district debt at a time when the district is still returning to normal after pandemic restrictions had lifted. He pointed out that SPS officials told the group at an earlier meeting it could be a year before enrollment data had leveled out. 

“When we’re talking about spending $200 million, to me it’s just prudent to make sure that were we choose to invest that money, we know what data to really back up those schools and where the kids are going to be,” he said. 

But the majority pushed for action now.

Tim Rosenbury, a former school board president who is director of Springfield’s quality of place initiatives, said the task force could roll the dice on whether economic factors would be more favorable a year from now, but the needs at the buildings remained. Sophia Leonard, a student at Central High School agreed. 

“You’re saying you’re going to let these issues sit and fester for two years?” she said. “You don’t want to do that. The need is here, and the need is now.”

Cory Matteson

Cory Matteson moved to Springfield in 2022 to join the team of Daily Citizen journalists and staff eager to launch a local news nonprofit. He returned to the Show-Me State nearly two decades after graduating from the University of Missouri-Columbia. Prior to arriving in Springfield, he worked as a reporter at the Lincoln Journal Star and Casper Star-Tribune. More by Cory Matteson