by nathan oster
A consensus on up to three potential solutions emerged during the second meeting held in conjunction with a capacity study of Big Horn County School District No. 3’s middle and high school campuses.
The School Facilities Department ordered capacity studies of six Wyoming school districts, and a representative of the architectural firm hired to conduct those studies, MOA Architecture, offered a glimpse Wednesday evening into some of its preliminary findings for a roomful of interested school teachers, administrators and support staff.
Jack Mousseau, an architect with MOA, began with an overview of the “givens” used by the design team, including the 85 percent utilization factor that they were asked by the state to use for middle and high school buildings. The utilization factor, Mousseau said, looks at the functional capacity of the building.
The architects also evaluated the district’s middle and high school enrollment trends, out through 2020. The actual GHS and GMS enrollment for 2011 was 281. For 2012, it was 293. Based on current student numbers and data given to it by the state, MOA projects GMS and GHS enrollment to decline to 267 by 2020.
Mousseau said the architects project an increase in railroad jobs into the near future, but not enough of an increase to change the enrollment projections.
Mousseau proceeded to present the findings of the capacity study, but those findings, it soon became apparent, were somewhat skewed because the architects were working with some outdated floorplan information.
For example, the architects factored the back classroom in the GMS Gym building into the GMS space allocation, when in reality, it is used as a technology office and as the site of one high school computer class a day. In another example, the architects didn’t realize that a room that was once used as a computer lab had been turned into a reading coaching room.
Bryant told Mousseau and the SFD representative listening in on the telephone, Troy Decker, that he would update the floorplan the following day, and all three agreed that the updated figures would change the findings of the study.
While acknowledging that, Mousseau proceeded with his presentation. The study, he pointed out, found that the existing GMS facilities, using the state-mandated 85 percent utilization factor, have a capacity of 168 kids.
The district’s 2011-12 enrollment was 124 (equating to a utilization rate of 63 percent), meaning that there should be space for another 44 students. By 2020, using a reduced utilization rate of 70 percent to account for small school scheduling, the architects found that the school, if left in its current state, would have room to house up to 26 more students.
The high school’s current utilization rate is even lower, coming in at 35 percent. The quantitative analysis put the 2011-12 enrollment at 169, and with a benchmark utilization rate of 85 percent, the building would have a capacity of 413 students, meaning there is currently room for 244 students in the building. By 2020, again using the 70 percent utilization factor, the building would have a capacity of 340, and a projected enrollment of 154, leaving room for 186 more students.
There was considerable discussion about what utilization rate should be used for the district. Decker said 85 percent is the standard set by the state, but school officials lobbied for a lower percentage to be used, noting that not all the square footage can be utilized 100 percent of the time due to staffing limitations.
“I don’t think 85 percent is a good utilization rate for small district; it does’t show an accurate picture,” said Supt. Barry Bryant. “Look at the six districts MOA is studying. We’re small compared to them. We have 500 kids. Cody has 1,700. In Wyoming, over half the districts are small districts.
“The same things (the architects) are seeing here will apply to half the school districts in Wyoming.”
Mousseau said MOA’s final report would reflect that view, although Decker cautioned that 85 percent is “reality,” and that MOA’s role is to observe and “not to make recommendations outside of the mandated methodology.”
Bryant responded that it’s an emotion issue for school districts. “What we see, we live with every day,” he said. “We aren’t trying to get MOA in trouble. They are walking the grounds, seeing the same things we are. We hope that they convey that sometimes the cookie cutter approach doesn’t work … that sometimes things need to be changed because the cookie cutter doesn’t fit every district.”
While there was some debate over capacity, there was little over the functional deficiencies at the middle school, where the hallways are too narrow. According to Mousseau, code requires a 72 inch minimum width for hallways. With the locker doors closed, it’s 76 inches. When open, it’s 56 inches.
In addition to that Mousseau concluded that the building lacks technological infrasture, social space for student and infrastructure and a lack of 21st century educational spaces and infrastructure.
“We know for certain there are suitability issues, and that there is possibly a capacity issue as well,” Mousseau said.
Mousseau presented four options for public input, two of which — one calling for sixth graders to be moved to the elementary school, the other calling for eighth graders to be incorporated into the high school — were immediately rejected the teachers and administrators.
The consensus of the room appeared to be that the best option was the one calling for elements of the current middle school — either the computer lab or the library — to be consolidated into the high school and for the GMS building to be remodeled in such a way that additional hallway space would be created.
By moving computer labs from the middle school to the high school, it would free up two rooms with capacities for 20 and 13 for use as general teaching stations, and with some renovations, the building’s circulation could be improved.
According to MOA, this option would also allow unused teaching stations and other spaces at GMS to be converted to larger and/or smaller learning space. That, in turn, would provide ‘hang out’ spaces during lunch period and for special education spaces.
However, one downside is that students would need to leave the building to access the computer labs. In addition, the high school would needed to be reconfigured to include the computer rooms.
As an offshoot of that option, Mousseau said the media center could also be incorporated into the high school library/media center. By doing so, corridors could be widened, which would alleviate some of the overcrowding as well.
Option 1 would have put sixth graders in the elementary school, but teachers and administrators agreed there is no room left at the elementary school. For it to happen, an addition would need to be built. And besides that, Principal Brenda Jinks said sixth graders belong at the middle school, not at the elementary.
“I wouldn’t support changing our middle school configuration way from 6 through 8,” said Bryant, noting that if sixth graders were moved out, it may not justify having a principal, a secretary and a counselor at a middle school with just 80 students. “We try to get the most bang for the buck,” he said.
Kim Coyne, a special education teacher at GES, said the school is bursting at the seams the way it is. “We’re already teaching in the closets,” she said.
Option 2 would have moved eighth graders into the high school, but it too failed to generate support from those in attendance. The recommendation was based on GHS having excess capacity in the eyes of the state. While better than the first option, Bryant said it would likely be unworkable. In addition, some renovations to the buildings would be needed.
Of course, a new building tops the school district’s wish list. Mousseau acknowledged that it would solve all of the district’s problems with respect to overcrowding and other deficiencies at GMS.
“But ultimately, this one is also the hardest to prove out from an economical standpoint,” he said. “The reason is because there is so much capacity identified (elsewhere on the campus), and it’ll be difficult, until you are effectively utilizing the space in this building, to convince the state to build a new middle school.”
Cheryl Hunt, who is teaching at the middle school this year, said she found it ironic that the state would even consider sacrificing library space to create more space in a building. “The state needs to look at, what are we here for? True, we don’t want to be throwing money into the wind. But what are our priorities? If it truly is reading, it’s ironic that you’d be willing to get rid of library space so there’s room in the hallways as a way of preventing kids from crawling on each other.”
Mousseau said the next step would be for MOA to re-evaluate its data, based on updated figures from the school district. Another meeting to present the findings will then be presented.