More than 1,200 people concerned about the fate of Shawnee Mission South High School’s 45-year-old environmental science laboratory have signed an online petition asking the school district to choose a different site for a proposed aquatic and fitness center.
The aquatic center is part of a proposed $223 bond issue for school upgrades and remodeling that voters will consider in January.
Petitioners are concerned that the Shawnee Mission Environmental Science Laboratory — a 22-acre fenced site adjacent to the school at 107th street and Nall Avenue featuring prairie, woodlands, a pond and stream — is being considered as a possible site for the aquatic center.
“My son came home from school and told me his science teacher said that the center would be built on a portion the environmental lab’s prairie,” said Kelley Ahrens, a parent who started the petition drive. “We are asking the district to consider another location for the center and not disturb the biodiversity of the area. Once it’s destroyed, it’s destroyed.”
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Ahrens said the outdoor lab, which has been used by an estimated 100,000 elementary, middle and high school students during the school year and summer enrichment classes, should remain untouched.
Another parent, Tara Gatti, who has two children at Shawnee Mission South, agreed.
“I hope the district can come up with another location,” she said. “Why destroy the environment and a valuable learning experience when there are other, more suitable locations?”
District officials, however, said the petition drive is premature.
“While Shawnee Mission South has been discussed as a possible location for an aquatic center, there are no firm plans for a design or where it would be placed,” said Leigh Anne Neal, district spokeswoman.
Shawnee Mission South High School Principal Joe Gilhaus agreed. “Several possible sites are being considered,” he said. “The environmental science lab is just one location. At this point nothing has been decided because the bond issue has not been passed.”
Ahrens plans to vote against the bond issue because of her concern about the outdoor environmental science lab.
She and Gatti said they would favor placing the center behind the school stadium at 107th and Lamar rather than at 107th and Nall Avenue.
“There is a good chunk of land there not be used,” Ahrens said. “Why can’t they place the center there?”
The aquatic center would provide a space for district swim meets as well as a location for swimming lessons for second- and third-graders. The district also is in talks with a YMCA regarding the possibility of attaching a structure to the proposed aquatics center for a YMCA facility. It could serve as a student and employee wellness center and could be open to the public. The YMCA would handle its operation. The proposal’s details haven’t been finalized.
Ahrens said that locating the center at 107th and Nall Avenue on environmental science lab land might be partially driven by the YMCA. “There is more visibility and easier access to I-435 there,” she said. “But there is also a lot of traffic congestion. An aquatic center would add to that.”
Ahrens also voiced concerns about stormwater runoff created by having a center in that location. “It would be in a flood plain,” she said. “Where will runoff from the new center go? It could create potential flooding.”
Gatti said that she was concerned the outdoor lab would get lost amid positive reaction to other projects that would be funded by the bond issue, including pool upgrades at the five high school swimming pools, safety and security projects for all of the district’s school buildings; continuation of the district’s technology initiative; replacement of the district’s 20-year-old air-conditioning systems; and razing and rebuilding five elementary school buildings in the five high school feeder areas: Rhein Benninghoven, Crestview, Trailwood, Briarwood and an undetermined school in the West feeder area.
“I think it’s important for people to know the SMESL location is being discussed,” Gatti said. “I don’t want people voting blindly (for the bond issue) without that knowledge.”
Said Ahrens: “Once the biodiversity is changed it will never be the same. There are going to be a lot of unhappy kids if that happens.”