North Tama explores nine facility options

North Tama Schools Superintendent David Hill (right) gives input on the nine options for upgrading the district’s facilities as presented during the August 16 board meeting. From left to right, Andrew Bell with Align Architecture & Planning, board president Rod Zobel, and board member Doug Dvorak (foreground) are also pictured. Photo Ruby F. Bodeker

The spotlight is always on education at North Tama School Board meetings, but during the board’s regular meeting on Monday, August 16, more light was shed on the various options the district could pursue as part of its long range master plan.

Everything from building a new high school at the athletic complex northeast of town to modernizing the existing school building to just keeping the status quo was presented by a team of architects.

The facility study was begun this past spring — the architectural firm Align Architecture & Planning, Waterloo, in cooperation with Plunkett Raysich Architects (PRA), LLP and Modus Engineering spent the summer going through the district’s buildings and brainstorming options for “visionary space needs.”

Andrew Bell with Align Architecture was present at the meeting to go over the written options.

“We were looking for anyone who would talk to us,” Bell said of the time he and his colleagues spent in the buildings this past summer.

Superintendent David Hill made a point of telling the board the written options as presented were just that, options, and the intent of the presentation was merely to introduce those options, not advocate for one over the other — yet.

“We’re talking about written options, big picture thoughts,” Bell added, “we’ll pare things down and look more into big cost options” at the special board work session scheduled for Tuesday, August 31 at 6:30 p.m.

Devin Kack with PRA was also in attendance at the meeting via Zoom. As Bell flipped through a slide presentation, Kack provided commentary on the different plans to the board.

The first slide showed the current state of the district using satellite imagery of both the district campus on Walnut Street and the athletic complex.

The slides then changed to highlight in red the different written options — the board was provided with a packet outlining each of those nine options.

“What would it look like if the whole district was brand new?” Kack posited. “Obviously that would be a huge undertaking, but right now, when we’re just looking at it in paper form, that’s an ideal time to explore that.”

Slides highlighted expanding the current school building to the east, west, and south, as well as moving all or a portion of the buildings out to the athletic complex.

The list of options included:

Maintenance only and becoming ADA compliant. (1)

Modernize the existing school. (2)

Elementary school west addition and modernize existing building. (3)

Expand elementary school south and modernize existing building. (4)

New elementary school on adjacent west parcels–connected–elementary school repurposed for high school. (5)

New elementary school on adjacent west parcels–separate building–elementary school repurposed for high school. (6)

New high school adjacent east parcels. (7)

New elementary school adjacent to the athletic complex which would involve new land acquisitions. (8)

New high school at athletic complex. (9)

Options five through nine would require razing the existing 1917 building and constructing a new building.

“Every piece in this building — including the newest — has some needs,” Hill said. “Obviously the newest [addition] is probably going to be the least expensive to do what needs to be done.”

Hill sought to soothe concerns over the enormity of many of the options by reiterating several times the options review packet contained a spectrum of ideas and “big level brainstorming.”

“Nothing’s being proposed,” Hill said, “but you have to start somewhere.”

Board member Doug Dvorak had several questions for the architects including if they already had in mind the three or four options that would make the most sense for the district.

“We’re not interested in wasting anybody’s time,” Bell answered. “What we want to have happen is to say that the board has thoughtfully considered the reasonable set of options before them and come to the conclusion.”

Board members also expressed concern with the next step, Step 4: Concept Development, which takes place at the special board work session on August 31.

“Can we really get [down to] three [options] in one night?” Dvorak asked.

Both Bell and Kack expressed confidence they could, with Kack pointing out that many of the options are variations on a theme.

“Deciding to eliminate an idea is important, too,” Hill said.

“Certainly the community will be involved in the decision making process, but the board is leading this charge. By helping pare down the options it makes it easier for [public stakeholders] to respond,” Bell said.

“The mark that this board is going to make is going to be huge, even not knowing exactly what it is that we’re going to do right now,” Hill said.

“This is the alternative to the band aid fixes that can continue to keep the doors open and the lights on,” Bell said.

Elementary principal report

Elementary principal Susan Johnson gave an update on the STEM BEST (Businesses Engaging Students and Teachers) Program grant the school was selected to receive by the Iowa Governor’s STEM Advisory Council. Johnson had her first orientation meeting with the advisory board on August 10 via Zoom. An individual meeting will be scheduled soon. Teachers are eager to learn more about the grant and the timeline, Johnson said.

Johnson told the board she had four students registered for Pathblazers (formerly Edgenuity) this school year–the virtual learning option. A medical release is required to learn virtually at North Tama Schools this year.

Board members expressed concern about the use of Edgenuity last year, to which Johnson replied, “I was not impressed with them just because we didn’t get the product until a couple weeks into the school year. … The actual product is pretty darn awesome.”

A question was also asked about who would be the point-person for the virtual students’ learning — Johnson indicating she would be taking on that role this year.

Secondary principal report

Secondary Principal Jeromiah Bliss provided board members with a copy of his new attendance letter and policy ideas in regards to unexcused absences — highlighting his desire to avoid out-of-school suspension whenever possible.

“Our students [today] are dealing with different things than we ever did,” Bliss said.

The new attendance letter will provide documentation and communication to parents and guardians at every step of the truancy process in order to keep kids in attendance. Bliss expressed his desire to use trauma-informed decision making when it comes to attendance.

Bliss also gave an update on staffing. Discussion centered around the district’s continuing quest to hire a part time Family and Consumer Science (FCS) teacher and the difficulty in doing so in the current environment.

“I’ve called everywhere,” Bliss said. “Being a half time position makes it exponentially harder to fill. A long term sub is also equally as difficult.”

Bliss explained that when the 2020 student teaching year was cut short due to the pandemic and fall 2020 loomed with uncertainty, many college education majors were forced to put off graduation. Many more teachers opted to take early retirement due to COVID. Bliss said it’s nothing North Tama has done wrong — there are not many FCS teachers in Iowa.

“Everybody’s in that boat.”

Superintendent Hill told the board eventually they might need to make FCS a full time position in order to both hire and retain a teacher in the position.

At the time of publication, all positions other than FCS had been filled at the secondary level, Bliss said, as long as the part time physical education contract was accepted by the current applicant.

Pandemic response policies and procedures

The board approved the policies and procedures to be implemented this school year in response to the continuing COVID-19 pandemic.

North Tama Schools is utilizing on-site, in-person attendance and is at 100 percent capacity. Remote learning is only available to those with a documented medical need.

Vaccinations are not required of staff nor students per recent legislation (Iowa House File 889) but the district encourages vaccinations for all who are eligible. Hill indicated more than 80 percent of staff are vaccinated.

Masks are allowed in school but not required as recent legislation prohibits requiring masks (Iowa House File 847). Masks are also not being required on school buses.

“We are a school,” Hill said. “We get our authority through the state of Iowa. The state of Iowa has a law that we can’t require masks. … The advice from our attorney was [to] recommend that you either require masks on the bus but don’t enforce or you recommend it.”

For the full details on the district’s Pandemic Response Policies & Procedures for the 2021-2022 School Year, visit the North Tama Schools website.