This JoCo district wants to tear down and rebuild more schools. Why not just renovate?

In the past couple of years, the Shawnee Mission school district has torn down five grade schools and constructed six new ones. Now officials are eyeing which ones to rebuild next.

In Johnson County, it’s an issue that doesn’t come up as much in the newer school districts to the south and west, where buildings are generally decades younger than the half-century-old schools that were recently demolished across Shawnee Mission. Districts such as Blue Valley and Olathe are either constructing brand new schools are updating and refreshing existing buildings.

But in Shawnee Mission, it’s simply more cost effective to knock down the aging, problematic buildings and replace them with bright, modern schools, complete with flexible classrooms and the latest technology, said district spokesman David Smith. Voters in 2015 approved a $233 million bond issue to help pay for the six new buildings.

Still, some parents said the district is not prioritizing the right projects. Others argue they were left out of decisions regarding how and when schools were rebuilt.

As Shawnee Mission looks toward a potential $177 million bond issue next year — which officials have said could fund the rebuilding of three other schools — parents plead that the same problems don’t crop up again.

“I think the building site design and decision making process are intentionally trying to disengage the school community,” said Kim Whitman, a parent of two children attending the new Trailwood Elementary School in Overland Park, which opened in 2017. “I feel like the administration needs to be more transparent, engage with the community and listen to our concerns and suggestions.”

Officials celebrated the completion of the newest school, Brookwood Elementary in Leawood, this spring. That followed the construction of Crestview, Trailwood, Briarwood, Rhein Benninghoven, which replaced older elementary schools, as well as the new Lenexa Hills.

A preliminary plan presented last week listed the next recommended projects, including the reconstruction of Pawnee and John Diemer elementary schools in Overland Park and Rushton in Mission. The three buildings are all more than 50 years old.

Smith said that discussions will continue over the next two months and that meetings will be open to the public.

“Community input will be a huge part of the process,” he said. “We know having that community involvement will allow us to make the best decisions we can.”

But some parents are still reeling from years of feeling shut out of meetings, unable to voice their opinions. Residents have critiqued the district for a lack of transparency, especially during the administration of former superintendent Jim Hinson, who retired in 2017 after abruptly announcing his resignation.

Superintendent Michael Fulton has been working to address the issue. Last week, for example, he announced the creation of three advisory groups to help implement a new strategic plan. He emphasized the group meetings will be open to the public — a shift from the past, including earlier this year, when the Digital Learning Task Force reportedly met behind closed doors, inciting criticism.

Another new advisory group, a Facilities Task Force, will determine what projects should be funded by the next bond issue, which Smith said would not raise taxes.

At its first community meeting last week, the task force listed the next schools slated to be torn down and rebuilt. In addition, the task force listed several infrastructure and security improvements, as well as suggestions for more schools to reconstruct in 2026.

Smith assured residents the suggestions are not finalized and there will be opportunities for public input at meetings throughout the fall. But some parents feel officials’ minds are already made up.

Westwood City Councilman Jason Hannaman attended the meeting and was disappointed to hear Westwood View Elementary School was not on the list. School board members in 2016 purchased land to build a new version of the school.

“Major city decisions like park planning and whether and where to allow development depend on what the district does,” Hannaman said. “So it’s a little surprising to see a preliminary recommendation come out that doesn’t seem to take any of that into consideration, or really even have a timeline for a decision.”

In the meantime, Olathe has been upgrading buildings in the past few years, and also has built a new high school and middle school. This summer, it opened the new Canyon Creek Elementary School in Lenexa.

The Blue Valley school board last week approved holding a bond referendum in January, where voters will decide whether the district should issue more than $186 million in bonds. Deputy Superintendent Mike Slagle said the district will hold dozens of community meetings over the coming months to discuss the projects the bond issue would fund, including security and technology improvements and roof repairs. He said no new buildings have been identified.

Some Shawnee Mission parents have argued their district should spend money updating and maintaining schools rather than building new ones from scratch.

“I think renovation is an awesome solution. I don’t agree with them saying it’s more expensive,” Whitman said.

The district did not provide information as to the cost of renovating versus reconstructing schools. But Smith said the price tag is higher to maintain 50-year-old schools, many of which have reportedly had asbestos, water damage and other issues.

“The way we need buildings to be now, we need a higher level of safety. We need buildings to be wired for 21st century communication needs. And we need flexible spaces that are different from traditional classrooms,” he said. “There are so many things we get from a modern building. We could renovate it and then it would last another 20 years, but then we’d have to build new later. We’re a school district. We don’t have unlimited resources. We’ll always try to do what’s best.”

Devin Wilson, who is running for a seat on the Shawnee Mission school board, said he’s happy to see the district rebuild schools, especially if new buildings are more energy efficient. He said the district is starting to do a better job of educating the public about projects.

“The public was part of some of the process last time in trying to determine some of the priorities, so I definitely think the district needs to build on that,” he said.

When feeling left out of the planning process a few years ago, Whitman felt discouraged when she saw the designs for the new Trailwood Elementary School.

“The design is not walkable or pedestrian friendly, and that’s really sad for our community,” she said. “And they built Trailwood too small. I mean, it’s modern and it’s fresh and clean. Those are all nice things to have. But we lost so much in the rebuild.”

She’s begging for a more comprehensive public input process this time around.

Some parents, officials and school board candidates said they feel the district is moving in that direction, especially by opening up the task force meetings to the public.

“I’m really grateful that our new superintendent is putting emphasis on transparency,” said Jamie Borgman, who is challenging Wilson for a school board seat in the November election. “It’s a change from the past. It’s a welcome change.”

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Sarah Ritter covers Johnson County for The Kansas City Star. Formerly a reporter for the Quad-City Times, Sarah is a graduate of Augustana College.