These two facts say a lot about why folks in Tonganoxie are talking about their new school.
One: There hasn’t been a new elementary school built from the ground up there in more than a century.
Two: The state-of-the-art school, which opens in less than two weeks in the small northeast Kansas town, is apparently the largest elementary school building in the state.
“That’s huge,” said Nathan McCommon, Tonganoxie’s city administrator. “Overall, the school district is the most attractive draw for people who want to move here. The new school makes my job, promoting the town, a lot easier.”
Tonganoxie is a 30-minute drive from downtown Kansas City and 10 from the Legends Outlets mall, Kansas Speedway and the new Cerner campus in western Wyandotte County. In the last 10 years, it has seen 30 percent growth in population. About 850 people lived in Tonganoxie when the old elementary school was built in 1902. More than 5,000 live there today, and the school district reaches well outside the city limits to unincorporated areas.
“I would say the school district has struggled to keep up with demands,” McCommon said. Elementary-school-age children were crammed into the overpopulated old school in Tonganoxie’s downtown.
That won’t be a problem in the new, two-story, 145,000-square-foot Tonganoxie Elementary building. It has room for 1,200 students, 350 more than the 850 enrolled for the coming school year, which starts Aug. 20.
And there’s plenty of space for extras, such as the fit pit, with age-appropriate exercise equipment right next to one of the two gyms. It has three music rooms, a life skills office and a volunteer center. With cavernous hallways, the building is as big as three football fields.
The old elementary school could fit inside it twice, said Lyn Rantz, Tonganoxie’s schools superintendent.
That’s what $27.2 million can buy.
Last Tuesday, Rantz stood in the middle of Shawnee Street and looked lovingly at the vacant 113-year-old Tonganoxie Elementary School, the way a person might bid farewell to an old home where generations had been raised.
“It’s a sweet old school, isn’t it?” Rantz said. “Just think, three months ago it was alive and full of energy.”
But on Tuesday its insides were dark and bare, and tiny trees sprouted from the gutters around the one-story, pale brick building that over the years had been expanded six times, including once right after World War II, then again in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s.
Meanwhile nearly a mile away, a high-pitched whine from a mechanical lift filled the broad halls where a maintenance worker made finishing touches before the school year begins.
A few smiling teachers pushed carts loaded with boxes as they moved into their classrooms.
Rantz, a former principal in the Blue Valley School District, took the Tonganoxie district job last July. Tonganoxie Elementary is the first new school she has opened in her 20-year career.
Smiling broadly, Rantz led a tour through the school. She pushed open door after door, showing off the art room with a kiln, the library with a colorful reading area, a computer lab, the two gyms, a cafeteria and the science lab — spaces the old school didn’t offer.
Before now the students did art in one of two trailers. Paraprofessionals had desks in the hallway, and several classrooms were housed in a windowless Quonset hut behind the dated building.
The new school has a touch-screen smart board and projector in every classroom and more coffee makers overall in its teachers’ lounges than the old school had toilets, Rantz said.
“It was a historic building with limited space,” she said. It leaked, flooded and overtaxed its outdated air conditioning system.
The new school is divided by grade level into six sections marked by rainbow colors. Each section has about 10 classrooms, plus bathrooms and a workroom where teachers can collaborate. Early childhood and kindergarten, second and fourth grades are on the upper level; first, third and fifth grades are downstairs.
Sunlight from a wall of floor-to-ceiling windows splashes across two areas along the main hallway. In each open spot, carpeted stairs lead to a landing in front of the windows that overlook green space outside the school. Rantz calls them the learning stairs, a space for classes to get together for student presentations, a visitor’s talk or class book report presentations.
“This school is uniquely designed as a large enrollment school,” said Mark Franzen, president of HTK Architects in Overland Park, which designed Tonganoxie’s elementary school and several others in the state. Grade-level sections have been a popular design in middle schools for years, Franzen said. They are gaining popularity now in districts transitioning from rural to suburban.
With all the new school offers, “this move is bittersweet for us,” Rantz said. “We loved the old building, but now we can spread out. We know we have a space that is safe and conducive to learning for every kid. It’s conducive to retaining staff.”
That’s important in Kansas, where problems with education financing — blamed on a change in the way schools are funded — have forced mass teacher layoffs in some districts and in others have teachers fleeing across the state line to Missouri districts. Unlike Missouri, where schools are funded through a formula that relates to pupil attendance, Kansas schools get a lump sum, unaffected by growing enrollment like Tonganoxie is experiencing, Rantz said.
“We had 45 new kids enroll just yesterday,” Rantz said on Tuesday. So far the school is expecting 51 new students this fall; the middle school expects 21 new students. “I don’t even know how many new students have enrolled at the high school,” she added.
District projections show that if the current growth rate continues, the elementary school will fill up in five years.
Getting a new building at a time when the state’s education spending is so tight is “a blessing,” teacher Missy Miller said. “I’m thrilled almost giddy to be here.”
It almost didn’t happen.
The first time Tonganoxie voters saw an elementary school bond issue on the ballot in April 2011 they voted no. Community leaders were asking for school money in a town where voters are conservative spenders, on the heels of a national recession and right after Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback had come into office promising lower taxes.
But 18 months later, in 2012, Tonganoxie voters overwhelming approved the $27.2 million school bond issue. The district will pay down debt until 2032.
McCommon said the Tonganoxie district has always touted good schools. “But it’s one thing to tell that to prospective families and businesses looking for a place to build, and quite another when I can drive right up to the new school and show that the town has put its money where its mouth is.”
Even students had a say. The two playgrounds — one for kindergarteners and first-graders, and a second for older children — were chosen by students from among a group of possibilities selected by an adult committee.
Third-grader Mark Geiger said he could hardly wait to start class in the new school. The 8-year-old looked extra tiny walking through the grand halls, with his mom and older siblings, looking for his classroom and hoping to find his teacher there.
“I’m excited for the first day of school,” Mark said. “I’m excited about this school. I like it most because it’s bigger.”
His brother Mitch and sister Macy, both in middle school, said they felt a tinge of jealousy. “I wish I were coming to this school,” Mitch said. “It would just be amazing to go to school here.”
To reach Mará Rose Williams, call 816-234-4419 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.