HPS stays flexible as elementary improvement plans progress

Hastings Public Schools and a Community Facilities Advisory Committee are keeping their plans somewhat fluid as they continue public discourse about the proposed improvements to the district’s elementary sites.

A $21.5 million bond issue on the May 13 ballot could fund renovations and additions at five of the elementary schools while also putting students and staff into a six-year transition phase as the projects are completed.

As time and discussions evolve, so do the plans, district administrators say.

“When you’re trying to balance diverse and sometimes conflicting values across the district, is the plan going to be perfect for everyone? Probably not,” said Superintendent Craig Kautz in an interview this week. “We can put forward our best ideas at this time, but they might not be the best ideas two years from now. We will learn a lot as we begin this process.”

The goal of the plan under the bond issue is to update and expand the elementary sites, which range in age from 33-87 years, and consolidate the six K-5 sites to five schools that will house three sections of each grade.

New wiring, plumbing, heating and air conditioning systems are critical needs in the district’s oldest schools, while a rearrangement of the district’s student population will be necessary across the board.

A significant shift in thinking has occurred in regard to Morton Elementary since the Community Facilities Advisory Committee first started communicating with the public about the plan.

During the first two years of the project, additions will be built onto the district’s three newest elementary buildings — Hawthorne, Lincoln and Watson — in order to hold more students.

After that, the Alcott and Longfellow buildings will be vacated one at a time to allow for major renovations and additions to those more historic buildings.

Originally, the district proposed keeping Morton students and staff at their site until the very end of the six-year project. Watson, Hawthorne and Lincoln elementaries would be expanded first and then, during the renovations of Alcott and Longfellow, those students would be housed in the expanded sections of Watson or other schools.

Now, however, the organizers plan to move all of the Morton population into Watson in two years’ time. The vacant Morton building then will serve as a host site for the Alcott and Longfellow populations when their schools are under renovation.

“When we first started talking about this, we wanted to protect the Morton kids by allowing them to stay at their site as long as possible. Now, however, we think it makes better sense to move the kids into their new attendance area sooner,” Kautz said. “If we get them settled into new sites, Morton can be used as a host site during those transitions.”

Morton’s location in the geographic center of the district also makes it a more sensible place to transport Alcott and Longfellow students during the transition.

The feasibility of fitting all of Longfellow’s population into Morton during Longfellow’s renovations is still under consideration, however. Alcott currently houses two sections of each grade, as does Morton, so Alcott’s use of the building will be smooth from that standpoint.

Longfellow has three sections of each grade, so there are two proposed plans for making Morton a host site for them.

Under the first scenario, portable classroom units from other schools will be transported to Morton in order for all of Longfellow to operate out of the Morton site. This plan would keep the Longfellow community together, but the cost of transporting the mobile classrooms is significant and the traffic created at the school could be overwhelming.

The second scenario would bring only three or four grade levels to Morton and send students from the other grades to Hawthorne or Lincoln during the two-year transition period. This plan divides the school’s grade levels and staff, but might be less costly.

These changes arose after talking through the plans with community members, parents, civic groups and district staff members throughout the last several months.

The district’s proposal will affect students at each elementary site, but the Morton community may be in for the biggest change. Students who are in kindergarten at Morton now will be moved to Watson before they reach fifth grade, where the previous plan would have kept them at the school until Middle School.

In addition, there are some areas in the plan where Alcott or Longfellow students could find themselves attending three school sites by the time they reach middle school.

“Depending on the route we choose to take, and the grade kids are in, some students could be at Longfellow for two years, then at Morton for a year, and finally at Hawthorne or Lincoln for a year, if we choose to move, say, the fourth- and fifth-grade sections of Longfellow to those other sites,” Kautz said.

Another change in the district’s original plans is the decision to maintain the courtyard area at Hawthorne Elementary. Previous plans showed the center courtyard filled in with a gymnasium and classrooms. However, the community advocated for the natural light and aesthetic benefits of the courtyard, so that conceptual drawing now places the gym elsewhere.

If the bond issue passes, there will be other aspects of the current plan that will continue to evolve, such as architectural details and transportation plans. District administrators continually will evaluate the progress and success of the project and make additional adjustments.

The conceptual plans in place for the new boundaries for each elementary feeder area likely will change over the next six years as well.

“Our current plans ensure that attendance areas are distributed equally, but they may not be convenient or reasonable for everyone. We can’t make a final call on the district lines just yet. That is something we’ll be continually evaluating,” Kautz said.

At a meeting April 21, the Hastings Board of Education will address whether to budget for the transportation of Alcott and Longfellow students to Morton or other sites when those schools are being renovated.

The challenge posed to the district, committee and school board rests in balancing cost-effectiveness with care for students and staff.

“Contemplating change always causes anxiety, and I don’t blame people for that. We hope to continue to communicate with the community and remain transparent in order to set more things in stone as we go along,” Kautz said.

Two informational meetings conducted this week at Morton and Longfellow were modestly attended, he said.

Parents and community members interested in asking questions or giving input about the plans are encouraged to attend one of four upcoming meetings or visit the district’s website at hastingspublicschools.org.

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