Elma School District mulls solution to capacity problem

After bond failure, grade reconfiguration, portable classrooms possible options

The Elma School District continued discussion around an upcoming facilities plan Wednesday night, when Superintendent Chris Nesmith presented possible solutions to ease overpopulated classrooms.

District voters in February rejected a $66 million bond that would’ve funded a new $45 million elementary school and a $15 million athletic field renovation. The district still needs to find room for a student body that grew by 170 this year and has a projected 11% growth rate.

The district is in the midst of several community facilities meetings to inform decisions for district officials. According to Nesmith, the district “can offset a lot of our issues through a building restructuring,” but the community needs to decide on how that will look.

At Wednesday’s meeting, Nesmith presented two scenarios, derived from prior meetings, for district reconfiguration: Move 7th- and 8th-graders to Elma High School and add square footage to the already-sparse building, or invest in classroom pods for the middle and elementary schools.

“I need to house 170 kids, that’s really where I’m at,” Nesmith said. “I could crosscut this in any way, I just need it in a way our community is most happy with.”

A large part of the problem, Nesmith said, is not only that the district is growing quickly, but that building size is not proportional to the students in each grade level. Elma Elementary for example, is one of the largest in the state at 750 students, while seven classrooms at Elma High School are sitting vacant with room for about 200 students.

Adding square footage to the high school in between the gym and mechanical room, as well as near the main entrance, would create a 7-12th grade “Elma secondary” school, a 4-6th grade “intermediate” school and a pre-K-3rd grade “primary” school. Calculating for inflation, the project would cost $18 million, according to Nesmith.

Nesmith said renovations would improve campus security at the high school, where the district has sometimes dealt with a “transient population” wandering around the campus.

Creating a 7-12 grades school would also allow for 8th graders to take more advanced classes, Nesmith said, although he acknowledged parents had expressed concerns about the wide age gap between students.

A potential problem lies in future plans for Elma High. If the district were to add square footage, it would render the high school ineligible to receive state match funding on any district bond for the next 30 years. Those funds can sometimes be substantial, Nesmith said. However, in its current state, the district is already missing out on state match funding because of the vacant classrooms in the high school.

That’s one pro for the classroom pod option: along with keeping the current grade level configuration, it would ensure schools remain on the table for state match dollars.

The cost for a pod — permanent structures that contains four classrooms and an auxiliary space — is about $4.8 million, and the district would need four of them, Nesmith said. That could present space issues at the elementary school, where the district is already bringing in one portable to accommodate immediate needs.

Adding more buildings, Nesmith said, would require more administrative overhead when the district is looking to move in the opposite direction.

The facilities plan currently in the works doesn’t have a set timeline, but Nesmith said he hopes to move on a solution in the next year or two. With either solution, the district will need taxpayer dollars in the form of either a bond or capital projects levy.

The district has launched a survey to garner community feedback about ongoing facilities planning, which will be distributed via email and posted to the district’s Facebook page.

Contact reporter Clayton Franke at 406-552-3917 or clayton.franke@thedailyworld.com.