Written by Don Ratzlaff Tuesday, 20 February 2007 18:00A groundbreaking ceremony earlier this month marked the official transition from a year of decision and fine-tuning in 2006 to a year of construction in 2007 regarding one of the most significant building projects in Marion's recent history.
A unique partnership between Unified School District 408 and Marion city government should result in a new auditorium, swimming pool and gymnasium for both local students and Marion-area residents.
"A year ago we were campaigning for the bond election," said Lee Leiker, USD 408 superintendent. "We had the bond election in April, and it passed by a significant margin-75 percent.
"It was great to have that kind of support."
Passage of the $8 million bond issue some 10 months ago was a significant accomplishment, but it turned out that a lot of work was yet to be accomplished before the project could begin.
"We've gone through that design time, and that's taken a little longer than we though it would," Leiker said. "We've gone a little different route. Instead of doing a design-bid-build concept, where you have six our seven different contractors bid, we decided to go with the construction management route."
The district hired Hutton Construction of Wichita to be construction manager.
"That has taken a little more time, but it gives the board of education a lot more input and latitude to every aspect of the project. They get to look more at all the bids instead of just general-contractor bids."
Leiker said the more hands-on approach of the board has enabled the district to maximize the dollars that taxpayers authorized the district to spend.
"We think we're really giving our taxpayers the most for their money," he said.
How has the project changed from its initial conception?
"It's a little bit larger than we thought it would be," Leiker said. "We have a little more than 7,000 square feet more than we thought we would."
The original plan called for about 55,000 square feet, but is now projected around 62,000.
"That's due, I think, to the time it took to get to this point," Leiker said.
"I think the board did such a great job of sticking to the things they told voters they would have," he added. "At times they could have gotten more space if they had brought the gym up out of the ground and put it on grade as opposed to a top-loading gym.
"They said, 'No, we told voters it would be a top-loading gym. We won't give on that. We told voters it would have an indoor walking track and a year-around pool'- and they didn't give on that.
"So I applaud our board. There were so many options and they could have taken a different route, but they stuck exactly to what they told voters it would be."
Leiker said the construction management approach took more time, but the results will be worth it.
"I think that's been time that's been well spent by our board of education. I think it was time that will be very beneficial to our community in years to come."
The auditorium will be the first portion of the project to be built. Construction on the gymnasium and pool complex will begin next month.
"We're looking at late fall to have the auditorium complete, probably the November-December time frame," he said. "And then about 12 months on the gymnasium. So we're looking at February of next year. We're hoping we can play a couple of basketball games in it next year.
"That's our goal. It will really be exciting."
Leiker said the fact that the new facilities will be available for public use as well as to serve students makes the project particularly significant for the community.
"That's another thing the board really wanted to do-not only to serve students, but to serve the community with the facilities," Leiker said. "They'll be really beneficial for a lot of community members to use, which is what our board wanted."
The building project may have captured the most public attention in 2006, but Leiker said he also is pleased with advances made within existing facilities during the past 12 months.
"We're doing so many things academically-we've implemented some new programs," he said.
One program he is particularly excited about is the district's Pathways to Reading program, that's based mainly in the elementary school for grades kindergarten through third.
"We also have found it beneficial for some of our other students in the upper grades," he added. "We still think it's a valuable program."
During the past year, staff have gone through extensive training with the program, which actually began a little over a year ago.
"Last summer, before this current school year, we had more of our staff trained, so it's been used in all of our primary classrooms."
Another new initiative Leiker highlighted is the development of a construction technology curriculum. The program involves students who want to learn the construction trade during an extended three-hour block that involves students in significant projects.
"Lucas King is the teacher for that and is doing a great job," Leiker said. "We're doing some smaller projects this year-we're building a storage shed for the district. But we want to get to the point where we're building a house a year."
One of Leiker's goals is to open the program to students from surrounding school districts.
"If they have students who could benefit from that, it would be feasible for students from neighboring schools to come over for that morning session or that afternoon session," he said.
"We feel other districts aren't any different than ours. There's students who just fit into that mold very well. They're more hands-on and sitting in a classroom all day isn't where they learn best.
"So we've created a class where they'll work for a two or three-hour block at a time. When we have enough students in the morning and afternoon sessions, we hope to construct a home."
Another area of advancement in the district has been in regard to technology.
"We're taking some steps forward in technology," Leiker said. "We have some teachers who have been trained in the Intel Teach to the Future program.
"I know there are other area schools that are into that as well, but we're finding that technology is a great resource for educating students.
"I think we're more successful educationally when we find ways to educate that students are interested in," he added. "I think technology is definitely one of those things that students are just well-accustomed to. By incorporating more of that into our classrooms, that's a great thing."
Leiker said the board has been "very, very supportive" of technological advancements in the classroom.
"We've also purchased some mobile carts for this year with 24 laptop computers in each building so teachers are able to take those into the classrooms," Leiker said. "All those (laptops) are wireless so they have Internet capability.
"So we're pleased with the advancement that we're making, but we have to continue to grow in that area because if you don't, it's amazing how quickly you can fall behind."
Leiker said the move forward is challenging to teachers.
"They're excited, but there's a pretty high learning curve for teachers in that area," he said. "Students know so much about it, but to incorporate the technology inside the classroom, our teachers are really working pretty hard."
On that issue, Leiker cited as a highlight the first county-wide in-service Marion hosted in fall for the districts participating in the Technology Excellence in Education Network.
"It was so exciting to have the five TEEN school districts work together for a common good," Leiker said. "We got a lot of positive comments from staff members from USD 408 about that in-service.
"It showed me the tremendous things teachers in our county are doing with the use of technology. So it was a neat day."
Leiker said the highlights he listed from the past year are no more important than the day-to-day advances made in each classroom.
"There so many things going on, but I've got to complement our teachers-they're working hard to improve students," he said.
"Like any school district, there are challenges," he added. "We're facing a continual decline in enrollment. That's stabilizing a little bit, but we always have to keep in mind what future years bring for us.
"We're hoping there's great opportunity for growth in our county and in our district."
Butler Community College
Director Pauline Holub feels the Butler Community College off-campus site in Marion has had another strong year in no small part due to the kind of faculty it has been able to recruit to lead classes.
"One thing that is very unique about our site, say from the big campus, is that we have veteran instructors here," Holub said. "Most of them have been coming back and coming back."
She said some instructors drive in faithfully from places as far away as Wichita and Goddard-and it's more than a job to them.
"Our instructors are very caring," she said. "They go over and beyond the call of duty to help students. They'll come in early if a student needs them. They care about their success."
The Marion campus is considered a full-service center, handling accounts payable and receivable, registrar duties, academic advising and even offering buy-back for student textbooks at the end of classes.
"Many students, depending on what field they're going into, don't have to leave Marion County (to earn a degree)-unless their major is technological specific," Holub said.
In addition to the academic classes offered, Holub cited several skills classes that are offered that attracted significant interest the past year.
A beginning class for training emergency medical technicians, led by Daryl Thiesen, drew 12 people-including a few from beyond the borders of Marion County. This summer, the school hopes to offer the next level of training, an EMTI class that includes intravenous skills.
"A lot of the folks who took the EMT basic class are looking forward to that-just to increase their level of skill a little bit," Holub said.
A class to train people as certified medical aides, led by Jane King, also drew 12 students from around the county.
That class was in addition to two classes held this summer to prepare people to be certified nurse aides-one session taught by King and the other by Suzie Kliewer.
"We will probably offer a CNA class this summer or in the fall," Holub said. "The nice thing about summer classes is that we had a lot of high school kids take that class. They start the middle of May and they're finished about the first to the middle of July-and then they have the rest of the summer to work. That's pretty accommodating to them."
A new class that hasn't been offered in a while teaches drawing to students covering a wide age spectrum is taught by Jane Davis, an art instructor from the public school system. A painting class, mostly comprised of senior citizens, has attracted 14 participants.
"This is kind of a nice community thing to have happening-especially for senior citizens to have some place to come and get together and learn something," Holub said.
Another uniqueness of the Marion program are the ITP classes offered to high school students from around the county.
"We deal with probably around 100 high school students from Centre, Peabody, Hillsboro and Marion," Holub said.
"The TEEN (Technology Excellence in Education Network) has been very good for us, with us and beside us," she added.
She said by the time most high school students reach their senior year, they have taken almost all of the classes required for for graduation. Rather than fill in their schedules with non-challenging electives, many college-bound students opt to take college classes through Butler-Marion.
"We have some students who are taking almost a full load of college classes in addition to their high school classes," Holub said.
"A lot of those student can get a lot of those gen-ed (general education) courses out of the way," she added. "Seniors, if they take gen-ed, can have 12 to 15 hours out of the way before they transfer to a university."
Beyond the high school students who take classes, Holub said enrollment at Butler-Marion involved 119 students.
"We're a little down this semester, but that is campus wide," she said. "Weather plays a big issue. In the middle of January (when spring classes begin) we started having all this nasty stuff. People aren't real thrilled about what it might be like in a month or two.
"Also, the economics in the area isn't the best, as far as the farming economy.
But Holub is upbeat about the future of the program at Marion.
"We have good teachers and we're maintaining," he said. "I think a lot of rural communities don't look at higher education as important, but if you're in their backyard, sometimes they take a little different look at it, and think, wow, maybe I need to take advantage of this.
"If they qualify for financial aid, that's all the better."