Elementary project remains under budget, board addresses therapy dogs

By Melissa Martin

March 23 school board meeting

As the district’s new elementary school enters its final stages of construction, Superintendent Joelle Magyar told members of the school board March 23 the building remains on time and approximately $2 million under budget.

School Board President Mark Dosen said the school, which will open at the start of the 2022-23 school year, was not only built efficiently, but was able to be built despite inflation and supply chain shortages caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“If you remember years ago when the community passed the bond issue to generate money for the project, the original plan was to have enough money to build a new school and to take care some of the district’s other permanent improvement needs which we have been able to do,” Dosen said.

Dosen credits project managers and contractors working on the project for having the foresight to order materials early, allowing the district to avoid spending more on building supplies.

“We are hearing horror stories from other districts [that are building new schools] who were later in the process being severely impacted by inflation, supply chain issues and other things,” he said. “We caught a really good break by starting when we did in the pandemic.”

Just because the elementary school remains under budget, that doesn’t mean the district elected to forego any of the features that make it a state-of-the-art school.

“It was always our goal to build an innovative school for the kids, to provide a learning environment our students want to go to every day because of the many elements we put in to make it a great learning environment,” Magyar said, adding that the staff and students who have recently been invited inside the building have expressed their excitement at many of the details.

For the students, Magyar said the most attractive feature by far is the indoor spiral slide that leads from the school’s second floor down to the school’s media center. Students will use the $26,000 slide on a weekly basis as a reinforcement for positive behavior when their classrooms are scheduled to visit the media center.

When the slide is not in use by teachers and their students, a safety gate located at the top of the stairs will remain locked, Magyar said.

The school will also feature two playgrounds – one for the district’s preschool students and another that will be for the elementary students. The elementary playground will reutilize the playground equipment currently installed at Hilton Elementary, Magyar said.

Inside the building, other popular features include a raised stage in the school’s cafetorium, which cost $100,000; as well as a dog wash station for the district’s new therapy dog, Cocoa. There is also a selfie wall, a sports wall, a Lite Brite wall and a Lego wall. Magyar said those features were incorporated as the district wanted to account for the student body’s emotional and social needs along with their academics.

“These are the sort of elements that are going into the building that makes kids [excited] to get on the bus and go to school every day,” Magyar said, noting that even with these ‘extras,’ the district has been good stewards of the $47 million taxpayers approved for the project, which also includes the adjoining fieldhouse, estimated at $7 million.

School Board Member Kathleen Mack expressed her disappointment with the district’s choice to install the slide and said it saddens her to think it can’t be used by all students, particularly those who are disabled and in wheelchairs.

“I understand that in the grand scheme of things, $26,000 is very little, but I remember how difficult it was for us to get that levy passed,” Mack said. “Based on the optics alone, I’m not comfortable with it. It’s very ostentatious.”

Magyar said that in hindsight she wishes the district would have pursued a more accessible option.

“There are plenty of things on the market that could be more accessible to students with disabilities,” she said, adding that she’s has asked the district’s physical and occupational therapists to look at the slide and come up with accessible ways students with disabilities might be able to use it and participate in it in some fashion.

Therapy dog backlash

School Board members say the district has received a handful of emails and complaints from district parents with regard to the district’s new therapy dog, who has been introduced to students in recent weeks.

Mack said the complaints center on student allergies and generalized fear when it comes to dogs.

The greater issue at hand, Mack said, was that the school board was not notified of the district’s decision to acquire a therapy dog prior to the dog’s acquisition.

“A month ago, I’m standing in the checkout aisle at the grocery store and found out we were getting a dog,” Mack said. “[Magyar] went and made a decision on [her] own in a vacuum that’s upsetting to me. And as we’ve seen in the emails, that’s upsetting to our public. … That’s what gets me. [Magyar] didn’t care enough about any of our opinions to ask us about this.”

Mack said there is a protocol that should have been followed before making a decision of this scale without the board’s knowledge and support.

“We ask people what they want, we ask our staff and do not make decisions on our own,” she said, noting that one of the emails the district received was from the parent of a kindergartener with dog allergies. She said the student was crying in the hallway of the school because she wanted to pet the dog with her classmates but because of her allergies, wasn’t allowed. “We already have enough obstacles and we just created another one.”

Because the district already has policies and insurance in place that permit animals in school buildings, Magyar said she operated under the premise that acquiring a therapy dog for the district was under her discretion as superintendent.

‘The dog is just another tool in our toolbox to support the social and emotional needs of our kids,” Magyar said.

Within just a few weeks of having the dog in school buildings, she said, Cocoa is already making a difference. She said a nonverbal, autistic preschooler saw the dog enter the classroom and said, ‘dog.’”

“This was quite an emotional a moment as until then, the student had been nonverbal,” Magyar said, noting that the dog was also called into service to assist an upset high school student who refused to leave the Zen Den. “Once we took Cocoa into the Zen Den, her face lit up and she sat and pet the puppy. After 10 minutes or so, she was able to pull herself together and decided she was ready to go back to class.”

Though Cocoa may not be the cure for all situations, Magyar said the fact that she is making a difference for some of the students – especially those who struggle emotionally or socially – makes her an invaluable tool.

“We had a similar incident at the middle school, where a student didn’t want to come to school until he came to the school one day and saw the puppy,” she said. “He has been at school every day since because he wants to see the puppy.”

To avoid issues, Magyar told the board the district has changed its emergency information cards which allow parents to note whether there is a fear of or an allergy to dogs.

“Those students are now flagged the same way those with peanut allergies are,” she said. “Our staff members will know who these children are.” ∞