Nearly 10 years after high school bond issue, Cape school officials taking cautious approach to construction projects

Sunday, December 20, 2009
Freshman lunch creates a traffic jam Monday at Central High School in Cape Girardeau. The kitchen was one of the main areas to lose space when plans for construction of the building were changed due to lack of funds. (Kit Doyle)

When funding fell short for Cape Girardeau Central High School in 2002, the administrative office furnishings were one of the cutbacks. High school principal Dr. Mike Cowan said he became accustomed to using a folding table and has not since switched his out.

"You'd have to fight me to get my folding table," he said.

Cowan said cost-saving measures were used to cut $6 million from the high school project to stay within the budget. Square footage was trimmed where possible, including the stairwells and about 20 feet in length from the commons, where students eat lunch, he said.

Cowan became principal at the high school in 2001, the last year it was in the building that currently houses Central Junior High School. While the district allocated space to add an auditorium and stadium, some decisions will remain for the life of the building, he said.

"We'll have those narrow stairwells forever," he said.

District officials admit they are facing a credibility issue with the way the high school project was executed 10 years ago and are cautiously approaching the project this time around.

For about a year, the district has been formulating a facilities plan to address deferred maintenance, overcrowding and safety. The plan outlines $50 million in projects districtwide. About $40 million would be included in a no-tax-rate-increase bond issue pending approval by the school board. About $14.5 million would go toward additions at the high school, including 16 classrooms, an auditorium and a stadium.

The plan, if approved, would be the most comprehensive and expensive construction endeavor for the district in recent years.

Between 1951 and 1967, the district constructed six buildings -- the building that houses Central Junior High School, Jefferson Elementary, Alma Schrader Elementary, the building that houses the middle school, Clippard Elementary and the building that houses district administrative offices.

The district did not go again to voters to construct new buildings until April 1993. Voters rejected a $25 million bond issue to construct a middle school and elementary school. The failed proposal was the biggest issue presented to voters in the past 40 years.

The plan was whittled down and rejected by voters two more times. In 1997, district officials succeeded in passing the first phase of a three-part plan with a $14 million bond issue to build Blanchard Elementary. The second part of the plan came to fruition in 2000 when voters approved a $18 million bond issue to build Central High School.

Dan Steska was the superintendent when the district approached voters in 2000. He said the district planned for but did not promise an auditorium or stadium.

"We had to recognize that the public would support the building of the building up to a certain financial level, but it's like your home. You can only do so much at one time," Steska said.

Unless the budget is unlimited, some cuts are routine in large capital projects.

"Cuts happen in most large building projects simply because people who want the building are optimistic that we can get everything we want or most of what we want," he said.

Steska took a superintendent job in Normal, Ill., in 2002. There, he also oversaw the construction of a new high school. He currently serves as the executive director of Cape La Croix Church, where he spearheaded more capital projects.

He said there was no clear plan for the third phase of construction at the high school. After Steska left the district, the administration changed hands three times. Two superintendents left the job after their contracts were not renewed.

Ten years after voters approved funding for the new high school, school officials held forums to gain input on the direction of a new districtwide plan. Feedback echoed with them to finish construction projects at the high school and address overcrowding in the elementary schools.

"We've come to realize that by waiting as long as we have to bring another bond issue to the public that we may have made a mistake," said board member Dr. Steve Trautwein. Maintenance and construction of the $20 million Alternative Education Center in 2008 were paid out of operating funds.

Trautwein was appointed to the school board in 2001 when the high school construction was in its final phases. During the initial phases, plans for an auditorium and events stadium were not promised, said Trautwein, who attended forums. Other cutbacks came later, he said.

"There are some things in which the district did not deliver," he said referring to the space issues that remain at the high school.

By using a construction management firm as opposed to a general contractor, the district will have more oversight, he said. The district also hoped to avoid past mistakes by creating a detailed facilities plan.

"Before we even started talking about a bond issue, we said we want to plan," he said. "We want a big plan, and we want a long-term plan."

In formulating the facilities plan, Neil Glass, director of administrative services, collected building data, surveyed teachers and held forums. In October, he started working with McCarthy Building Cos. to generate cost estimates for the project.

The St. Louis-based firm worked on construction projects for Fort Zumwalt High School in St. Peters, Mo., and Lindbergh and Ladue school districts in St. Louis. By using a company with an extensive database, district officials said they are planning for everything -- furniture, inflation and shifts in labor and material costs.

"I'm confident we can minimize a lot of those surprises because of the type of preplanning they're doing," Trautwein said.


Votes on school construction projects

November 1966: A $775,000 bond issue passed to buy land and construct a vocational school. The measure, which also added annexes to Central High School and Alma Schrader Elementary, passed 1,539 to 389.

October 1975: A $2.5 million bond issue passed to build a physical education addition at Central High School at 205 Caruthers Ave. The proposal did not require a tax rate increase and passed with a vote of 1,637 to 499.

April 1993: Voters rejected a $25 million bond issue to build a new elementary school and middle school. The measure failed 3,778 to 4,954. An addition to Jefferson Elementary was also included in the failed proposal. It included a 27-cent tax-rate increase in the district building that failed 4,049 to 4,577.

October 1993: After scaling down its initial proposal, the school board went back to voters with a 51-cent increase in the tax levy to build a middle school and an elementary school at the corner of Bertling and Sprigg streets. The issue, which included $18.5 million in projects, was rejected by voters 3,133 to 2,790.

June 1994: The district approached voters for the third time in less than two years to build a new elementary school. The increase of 37 cents per $100 assessed valuation failed by 176 votes.

April 1997: Voters approved a $14 million bond issue with a vote of 4,730 to 2,534. Voters also approved a net increase in the tax levy of 34 cents with a vote of 4,565 to 2,590. It included construction of a vocational-technical school, an elementary school and an addition to Jefferson Elementary. The approval set in motion the first of a three-phase plan.

April 2000: Voters approved a $18 million bond issue with a vote of 3,411 to 1,141. The issue funded the construction of a high school at 1000 S. Silver Springs Road.

April 2010: Board members will meet Jan. 5 and 13 to decide whether to move forward with a no-tax-rate-increase bond issue for the April 6 election. The district has outlined nearly $40 million in projects to be addressed throughout the district, including a new elementary school.

Pertinent address:

301 N. Clark Ave. Cape Girardeau, MO

Map of pertinent addresses

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