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Planners should do homework before choosing new high school site

Planners should do homework before choosing new high school site

Al Germond

Wading into the Great Controversy over where Columbia’s fourth high school should be placed, I have to say that the tentative decision to build where corn now sprouts at the southeast corner of Range Line Street and New Haven Road beyond the city limits looks to me like it really isn’t too far off the mark.

What the Columbia Board of Education should not consider is another developer’s offer of a site on Route Z north of Interstate 70, which, according to sources, has a serious—perhaps irremediable—flaw. Let’s begin with a scold or two.

The school location issue seems to be about trying to find the proper site at the 11th hour. Even if construction miraculously began sometime next year, the bricks and mortar—plus required infrastructure improvements—would push occupancy of the high school “plant” into the second decade of this century.

While the pace of population growth here has perhaps slowed, my first scold is to wonder why the Board of Education and the community at large didn’t start talking about building a new high school, say, 10 years ago!

Another rebuke should be hoisted for the board’s desire to prowl for a site on its own, spurning consultation and cooperation with a plethora of government agencies, including the Columbia City Council; the Boone County Commission; state and county highway departments; water, sewer, natural gas and electric utilities; the Boone County Sheriff; and the Boone County Fire Protection District—to mention just a few.

The recently reported row between the Board of Education and the Columbia City Council never should have come to pass. For any number of reasons, the agencies are entitled to be part of the site-selection process, and they should be willingly included.

Let’s start with the City Council. Going back to the 1930s, the city has worked with Hare & Hare, a prominent (some might say they were the pioneers) city-planning consultancy based in Kansas City. Hare & Hare wrote Columbia’s first city-planning document in 1935 and in fall 1966 recommended to the city that a high school be built near the intersection of Routes K (Providence Road) and AC.

At a time of rapid population growth 40 years ago, there was much upheaval in the administration, operation and consolidation of schools both in the city and in the surrounding rural areas. This stirred much discussion about whether to add on to Hickman High School or build a second comprehensive high school almost four miles due south of the Hickman “plant” on Business Loop 70 East.

The Columbia Public Schools district acquired the 42-acre high school site from O.L. Rogers for $2,500 an acre, or $105,000. Rock Bridge High School opened for classes in fall 1973, shortly after Providence Road was completely re-worked and straightened. There was nothing around Rock Bridge but open fields and a handful of houses.

Some will argue that the new high school should be located to serve recently developed and still-expanding residential areas north of Interstate 70. Given the four miles separating Hickman and Rock Bridge, locating a new high school four miles north of Hickman would place it near the junction of U.S. 63 and State Route 163 (Range Line Street) or well beyond most of the newly developed areas. This could produce racial imbalance at Hickman, so the board shifted its attention to the east, aided by the donation of the land that tentatively has been selected as the site for the new high school.

Now there’s another school site offering north of Interstate 70 that happens to be in the vicinity of other owned acreage that either already has been developed or is slated to be. Privately, it has been whispered to me that any site in this area north of I-70 is hugely flawed for an undertaking as ambitious as a high school because there is no primary sewer connection. Maybe that can be worked out eventually, but it has me wondering about the symphony of infrastructure issues that would confront any high school site.

What homework has been done relative to the site that’s been selected for the new high school? The access roads are paved but narrow and without shoulders and other safety features. What improvements are planned? Who is to perform them and at what cost? What effect will locating the new high school have on the trajectory of the eastern leg of the much-anticipated Stadium Boulevard extension? What about the availability of utilities, including water, power, sewer and natural gas? Relative to police and fire protection (because the proposed school is outside the Columbia city limits), what arrangements will be made with the Boone County Sheriff and the Boone County Fire Protection District to service this new “city of students” out in the county?

That’s just the bare minimum on a list of questions dreamed up rather casually. Locating and operating a major-scale educational campus called a high school is a rather monumental undertaking that requires cooperation from every government realm. The Columbia Board of Education shouldn’t act so offended when members of the Columbia City Council (among others) appear to be miffed. Some lessons apparently not learned from past experience should be adhered to from now on when looking out for the future of the greater Columbia area’s school children.

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