Northeast Joco

Shawnee Mission School District construction push raises codes question

Groundbreaking was held recently for Trailwood Elementary School in the Shawnee Mission School District.
Groundbreaking was held recently for Trailwood Elementary School in the Shawnee Mission School District. FILE PHOTO

Getting 80.5 percent voter approval for $223 million worth of school building improvements may have been the easy part for the Shawnee Mission School District. Proving a bit more complicated is the next stop: Building permits.

The district recently asked for an attorney general’s opinion on whether it had to design its construction to meet the codes in each city where building will take place, or whether the state-approved codes would suffice.

The request, made through Kansas Sen. Jim Denning’s office, said there was an expectation among several cities that the new construction would be done to their individual building codes. One municipality told the district it would have to comply with city fire and electrical codes rather than state codes, the letter said. Some other cities also said meeting the local codes would be a condition of getting the permits.

The letter did not name the cities, and Superintendent Jim Hinson and Deputy Superintendent Ken Southwick declined to name them in a later conversation.

“We’re not about trying to throw a city under the bus or call any city out,” Southwick said.

The problem, the administrators said, is that the district touches parts of 14 cities, each with their own codes. And the bond issue approval means some type of building will be happening on just about every school property. Not only is the district in the process of building five new elementary schools, but it’s also scheduled a new aquatic center and a redo of the stadium at Shawnee Mission South. Add to that the smaller upgrades such as those in kitchens and safe entrances and the result is hundreds of individual permits in multiple cities.

Often, the details of city codes may not agree with each other or with the state standards, which adhere to the International Building Code and national electric code of the National Fire Protection Association, Hinson said.

“The issue for us is what is the law, what are we required to follow,” he said.

Matching all the individual codes would slow down the construction and add to the design cost for schools, Hinson said.

And anyway, the attorney general previously ruled that cities may not impose stricter codes than state standards, according to the request letter.

Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt agreed, saying, “the state has pre-empted local building and electrical codes for the construction of school buildings and as a result a city may not condition the grant of a building permit on compliance with local building or electrical codes.”

The opinion cited a 1986 decision on the building codes in Lenexa as they applied to Shawnee Mission schools. “Because we affirm (that opinion) we conclude the answer to your question remains ‘no’ — a city may not condition the grant of a building permit on compliance with local building codes,” the opinion said.

Hinson and Southwick said the district didn’t object to anything in particular about the municipal codes, and that the state standards will still ensure safe buildings. “This is not about us trying to diminish the codes, to make buildings less safe,” Southwick said.

Instead, it’s about establishing uniformity in the design, he said. “Every time we can’t be consistent it’s costing us money,” Southwick said.

The upgrades in school district property will take place in Merriam, Shawnee, Overland Park, Westwood, Prairie Village and every high school and middle school, to name a few locations, they said. A plan is also underway to put a new aquatic center in Lenexa.

No construction has been delayed as a result of the permits question, the administrators said. Although the rebuilding at Trailwood Elementary has not yet begun, Overland Park officials said it was undergoing the normal planning review process.