CHS expansion on the horizon

Pictured is Columbia School Board member Adam Hemken during his presentation about the Columbia High School expansion project during Thursday’s meeting.  

From the results of the latest Illinois State Board of Education report card to the anticipated Columbia High School renovation project which is growing increasingly visible on the horizon, the Columbia School Board discussed a range of topics at its November regular meeting.

The largest discussion item the board covered Thursday night concerned the high school and its planned renovations which have been talked about over the last year.

School board member Adam Hemken provided a brief presentation to the board where he showed concepts and floor maps while outlining some of the key additions that are planned.

It was emphasized at the meeting that the current blueprints – particularly the names and labels on classrooms – were merely tentative placeholders.

Among the items Hemken mentioned were a new auditorium as well as a competition gym and several additional classrooms.

Hemken explained that the addition of 18 classrooms — the school currently has 29 core classrooms — as well as greater cafeteria space is meant to accommodate an anticipated 50 percent increase in student population in the near future.

Columbia Superintendent of Schools Chris Grode remarked on the progress this high school facility study has seen over the last few months.

“I’m at the point where I’m sort of getting excited about the high school,” Grode said. “This has been quite the task. It’s been almost kaleidoscopic. As you zoom out to look at the big picture, then you dive in to look at the details, then you zoom out to see if those details change the big picture. But we’re at the point now where the details are getting more and more exact and more and more fun.”

Hemken further spoke about the parking lot component of the project — the district is working with the city to expand CHS parking into the neighboring Bolm-Schuhkraft Park — noting that this part of the project is being done sooner for logistical purposes, expected to conclude near the end of the spring semester.

Following a hearty thanks from school board president Greg Meyer, Hemken also pointed out that the designs for the CHS project currently stand rather close to the project’s estimated budget.

“Right now we’re within 5 percent of our target budget,” Hemken said. “So to be this far into design and within 5 percent from a budget perspective… I’m very pleased that we’ve gotten to here and all of the major requirements that we gave them, we were able to make these trade-off decisions.”

Improvements to CHS, which was built in 1970, were first discussed some time ago, as the district observed capacity issues primarily at the high school and at Eagleview Elementary, with Columbia Middle School also taking on more grades than desired.

The building could more than double in size from 103,370 square feet to 217,552 square feet of gross area, with usable floorspace to be about 150,036 square feet.

The estimated overall cost of the CHS expansion project is roughly $25 million.

The other major discussion item for the board on Thursday concerned the latest Illinois Association of School Board resolutions, items typically pertaining to legislation which school boards across Illinois collectively vote on.

The board voted to follow IASB recommendations for each of these items, some of which included not adopting a law prohibiting industrial buildings near schools, approving the granting of state funds for school resource officers and approving a relaxing of rules for acquiring bus driver licenses given the shortage in drivers.

Concerning action items on the agenda, the board heard from a representative of Stifel as they discussed the issuing of bonds totalling roughly $9,995,000. The board ultimately approved this item, and it was noted the bond and interest tax levy rate will be kept steady relative to what it was for the past year.

The board also approved authorization of the estimate aggregate tax levy with an increase of 4.95 percent, the maximum amount the levy can increase without requiring a public hearing. Grode noted this was a sort of “first reading” of the levy which will be officially voted on by the board at next month’s meeting.

A graduation date for this year was also set for 1 p.m. May 19 outside or inside, with Grode saying the previous trend of setting separate outdoor and indoor graduation dates in the event of rain seemed to make traveling arrangements difficult for some families.

On reports, Columbia Assistant Superintendent of Schools Alyssa Smith offered a rundown of the recent ISBE report card as administration were able to compare the district’s performance to that of other districts over the last few weeks.

Smith’s assessment was generally positive, with the high school outperforming the state average in SAT scores and other areas, though she did note apparent issues with truancy — she explained that missing 17 days indicates truancy regardless of if those absences are excused or not.

She also offered perspective regarding designations of the district’s schools, with one being rated as exemplary and three as commendable.

“Obviously, when the school designations came out, it was a little shocking at first,” Smith said. “Last year we had two at exemplary and two schools at commendable. But trying to then realize that we have to look at the data and what does the data tell us and what can we do with it.”

The criteria for these ratings, Smith said, are always changing as they are relative to the performance of all schools in the state. The three commendable schools in the district each performed well, coming very close to meeting or passing the “exemplary” mark.

The administrative report for the month came from Columbia Middle School Principal James Elliott, though it primarily featured Amber Haven and some of her fifth grade students discussing Haven’s Out the Door program and how it helps them be better scientists right outside the school.

The start of the meeting was also marked by a public comment provided by Laura Schmidt, a CHS science teacher who spoke with passion on behalf of the district’s science departments regarding the total eclipse expected to occur  April 8, 2024.

Schmidt requested a change be made to the calendar, moving the April 26 early dismissal to April 8 in order to allow students and their families to travel outside of town — namely to Red Bud — as Columbia is not in the direct path of the eclipse, and the next expected eclipse in the area isn’t until 2154.

“This is an amazing opportunity before us,” Schmidt said. There’s a staff who’s willing to donate their time, their energy, their enthusiasm to provide a community service. And there’s students who want to witness for themselves what it means to stand in the full shadow of the moon. And there’s a total eclipse a little more than 20 miles down the road if we can just be granted permission to get there.”

Later in his report, Grode said he would look into the calendar situation as he recalled the eclipse coming up in discussions when the district calendar was first established.

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Andrew Unverferth

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