After hearing a report from Wayne Crawford, who facilitated a series of six public meetings to explain several land and facility options and listen to community concerns and suggestions, the board opted to
--place a $16.8 million bond issue on the April ballot that will ask voters to approve a 67-cent debt service levy,
--direct the administration to enter into negotiations to purchase the 70-acre Gieringer tract as the site for the new building and possibly for additional new schools in the future,
--direct the administration to shift from the current single-grade-plus-kindergarten distribution of grades to a multigrade -- kindergarten through second grade -- distribution in the three remaining older elementary buildings if the bond issue passes and after third through fifth grades have been moved to the new school,
--endorse the draft long-range building plan presented by Superintendent Craig Noah that calls for adding another elementary school in about 10 years and address middle school building needs in about 20 years and
--endorse the draft building maintenance plan presented by Noah that sets priorities for major repair projects.
In making those choices, the board heeded Crawford's assessment of what the community wants the district to do to solve the problems of aging, overcrowded schools.
Crawford said that following the failure of the bond issue in November, the fourth such failure in a decade, the board asked him to seek more input from the community about several key issues and to listen carefully to what the people had to say.
He noted that his sample was small -- about 200 people attended the six public meetings -- but among those who attended and expressed views, there was a clear preference on several issues.
Citizens preferred the Gieringer property as a site for future schools over two other sites under consideration. The site was favored, he said, primarily because it is not located on a busy road and because it includes enough land to build one or two additional schools.
Results of a recent unscientific poll on The Marshall Democrat-News Web site were consistent with Crawford's findings. Of 372 votes cast, 46.2 percent favored the Gieringer property. "None of the above" was next, with 25.5 percent. The Banks and Gaba properties combined for 19.3 percent of the vote.
Citizens also strongly favored the return to multigrade schools, he said. That's an option members of the school board expressed deep reservations about, but ultimately decided unanimously to support.
The current MDN Web poll on the subject also corresponds to Crawford's assessment. Of 240 votes cast as of 9 a.m. Tuesday, Jan. 26, 62.9 percent favor multigrade schools over the current hybrid system that has all first, second, third and fourth grade students at separate schools, with kindergarteners located at each of four schools.
As board member Teri Wright observed during one of the public meetings and Anita Wright (no relation to Teri) noted at the meeting Monday, the district's long range plan, if implemented in its current form, will solve the problem within about a decade.
By then, the district hopes to build a second new elementary school for pre-kindergarten through second grades, making all Marshall schools multigrade schools.
Board members expressed reservations about the move to multigrade schools based mainly on two factors.
Anita Wright said she is concerned that advocates of neighborhood schools may not realize that multigrade schools are not exactly what they seek.
District officials have noted frequently during public meetings that education and society have changed since neighborhood schools were common, and there is no possibility of returning to the practices of that time.
Demographic shifts, which were a primary reason for abandoning the neighborhood school model, remain a problem.
If the district tried to go back to neighborhood schools, Crawford noted, one school might have too few students while another would have too many.
Busing, which neighborhood school advocates have said they would like to see reduced or eliminated in town, would still be required in order to even out student populations and blend students according to categories like gender, academic achievement, economic background, etc.
Another concern among board members was the effect multigrade schools would have on teacher collaboration, which is a practice the faculty values in its efforts to improve student achievement.
Board member Sherrie Stouffer stressed the importance of having teachers in the same grade working in the same building.
Teri Wright noted that she initially resisted the idea of multigrade schools, but after listening to citizens at the public meetings, had seen merit in the idea and noted that teacher collaboration, though not as convenient, could still be done in a multigrade system.
Another issue Crawford reported on was whether to renovate the four existing elementary schools and build additions on two of them or build a new school. He said there were several strong advocates of renovation, but he also saw strong support for building a new school as a first step toward replacing the old buildings, and he did not detect a clear preference at the public meetings.
A recent MDN poll on the question with 181 votes cast indicated a majority favor building new over renovation, 57.5 percent to 26.5 percent, with 16 percent voting "neither" or "no opinion."
Noah presented the board with a long-range, three-phase facility plan that begins with the construction of the three-grade school proposed as part of the current bond issue.
Phase one also includes removal of the fifth grade annex at Bueker Middle School and elimination of as many classroom trailers as possible.
Phase two would begin in about 2020, depending on bonding capacity at the time, and would include a no-tax-increase bond issue to finance the construction of a new pre-kindergarten through second grade school at the same site as the grade three through five school, would close Southeast and Benton schools and explore new purposes for Northwest school, which is expected to have more life in it at that point.
Phase three would begin about 2030, and would include a no-tax-increase bond issue to construct a new middle school, possibly at the same location as the elementary schools.
Board member Kathy Green expressed support for the goals of renovation advocates who cherish the history and architecture of the old schools and said she hopes all of them, as they are retired from service, will be purchased and put to new uses so they can remain part of the community.
The buildings have outlived their usefulness as schools, she said, but they may still have some life left in them.
But while the district still needs those buildings for classes, life-support will be needed, and Noah presented the board with a facility maintenance plan that prioritizes projects needed for the next four years.
He said the plan is intended to move the district away from being primarily reactionary in its approach to maintenance.
"You rarely see someone replace a roof before it leaks, but we know the age of those roofs. There's no point in waiting," he said. "Even if it's bad financial times and it's not going to be pretty, you've still got to do it.
"You'd like to put money in the bank, build reserves, but this is more important," he added. "You've got to have a good environment for kids."
Anita Wright said she hopes the plan will show the community that the district is doing its best to take care of its facilities, including the older ones.
Topping the list in terms of priority and cost for 2010 is replacing the roof and doing brick repair at Bueker Middle School, where water leaks are rampant.
On a public tour of the building last week, Principal Lance Tobin pointed out a number of places where buckets were needed to catch water and places where ceiling tiles were removed because of water damage.
Noah said the cost of the BMS roof project could exceed $300,000 and might be more than double the district's entire facility improvement budget for the past year.
Although the plan emphasizes building maintenance projects, Noah stressed the need to make regular transportation and technology purchases, too.
He said the temptation to skip buying buses, for instance, can backfire because there might come a point when suddenly a number of buses need to be replaced at once, putting a real strain on the budget.