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Grand Island, NE 68802
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Seven projects, five years: A look back on the anniversary of the 2014 bond issue


On September 9, 2014, Grand Island voters approved a $69.9 million Grand Island Public Schools bond referendum to impact seven schools across the district.

The mail election bond was special. It was the county’s first mail election. It was the largest ever GIPS bond. It passed with 55 percent of the vote.

The community was clear in the planning process leading up to the vote: Get these projects done in five years.

It has now been five years and all seven projects have been successfully completed and are in use.

“We were told to get these seven crucial projects done in five years, and we came through on that promise,” said Dr. Tawana Grover, GIPS superintendent since 2016. 

Dr. Grover inherited the project from Dr. Robert Winter, who was superintendent when the bond issue passed in 2014. 

“Everyone involved, from the Board of Education and the GIPS staff to the students and their families should take pride in the success of this bond issue,” Dr. Grover said. “It has been an incredible process.” 

We asked a number of key district leaders, board members, principals and staff to recount in their own words their memories and thoughts on the process.

***

PREPARING FOR THE BOND:

DR. ROB WINTER (GIPS superintendent, 2010-2016): I expected the Board of Education, district staff and numerous steering committees to research and prepare a feasible plan that the community could support. We had three key issues driving the need for our bond issue: 1. The success of our growing community requires an investment in classroom space. 2. Great teachers with quality classrooms help kids succeed every day. 3. Every student deserves a safe place to learn. We had space issues, both from a programmatic standpoint – numbers of programs – and also simply more kids were in our schools. The Board of Education worked with district leaders to put together a plan to solve as many issues as we could. 

DAN PETSCH (GIPS director of buildings and grounds): We had a list of needs across the district. We went into the process of fact-finding with staff, principals and the public. That gave us the marching orders of what the bond was going to be. Our needs were space, especially west of Highway 281 (Engleman, Shoemaker). We needed safety improvements in open concept schools (Jefferson, Shoemaker, Starr). We needed to remedy some of our chronic old building issues (Stolley Park, Jefferson). The 100-wing at GISH needed to be transformed so we could get the most use out of the space we were limited to.

VIRGIL HARDEN (GIPS Chief Financial Officer): Since facilities are in my wheelhouse I have strong feelings and opinions on all the details of the who, what, where, when of each project being identified. However, through the experiences of the past and the realization my view is but one of many, I can truly say my expectation was one of "trust the process." Board of Education members are elected to represent constituents in their particular ward, but through the lens of what's best for all students. That's exactly what happened as we, together, developed a bond initiative that placed the resources where they were needed the most and this investment will be paying dividends for one-hundred years plus.

DR. ROB WINTER: A pretty significant piece is that we asked the community for their help, listened to them and then made a number of changes they recommended. 

JENNIFER WORTHINGTON (Chief of Strategic Partnerships and Stakeholder Engagement, was Board of Education President in 2014): The Board of Education held listening sessions with our initial thoughts. Based on feedback we did modify some of our plans. That made for a stronger ask of the voters. For example, we did not initially plan to do anything to Barr Middle School. We knew there was need at Barr but did not plan to incorporate that need in this bond campaign. The public said, if it needs to be done do it now. 

DAN PETSCH: The surprise to me was after the phone survey we did and when Barr Middle School was added to the list. It certainly needed the upgrades. The community asked us to add it, so we did. 

BONNIE HINKLE (Current Board of Education President, was a Board member in 2014): I believed we would be successful because it was clear why we needed to do this and I believed the community would support our efforts.

JEFF GILBERTSON (Grand Island Senior High executive principal): Our feeling was one of uncertainty that the public may not recognize all of the facility needs that existed in our school system. 

TRACY NELSON (Engleman Elementary fourth-grade teacher): I was extremely excited for the bond issue and to see Engleman Elementary was a part of the bond. When I saw first-year teachers setting up their classrooms in our school conference room and media lab, I knew that we needed more space at our school for our students and teachers. 

VIRGIL HARDEN: What worried me the most before it passed? That's an easy questions because the situation still burns in my mind. ENGLEMAN! What to do with the overcrowding at Engleman Elementary School? Let's put it this way, if the bond had failed, we would have still built the addition onto Engleman Elementary at great cost to the curriculum and other educational opportunities for all our children. Not because we wanted to but because the situation was truly dire.

BRIAN KORT (GIPS Recruiting and Retention Coordinator, was Barr Middle School principal in 2014): I was confident the bond would pass. The volunteers and the planning committee were great. The approach GIPS used for the bond vote was to tell our story and our need for our students.

LEE WOLFE (Shoemaker Elementary principal): We were very hopeful (it would pass) as we were running out of space at Shoemaker and an upgrade in safety within the building was also a critical need.

JOHN HAUSER (Starr Elementary principal): Before the bond passed, I was concerned with our students' safety and our large class sizes. Something needed to be done to address both issues.

JASON ZELASNEY (Jefferson Elementary teacher): I was in a tough situation as a teacher. My classroom had a curtain for a door, fake walls, and some walls that didn’t make it all the way to the ceiling. All day long my students could hear other teachers teaching in other classroom. Also, we were located next to the bathroom, so you can only imagine what that was like.

BECKY WAIND (Stolley Park kindergarten teacher): I would say that I was pretty excited for the bond - and a little unsure. I knew where I felt we needed schools - on the west side of Grand Island - and thought it was going to be a mixed chance of passing two new schools within a block of one another on the east side of town.  

VIRGIL HARDEN: Well the 2002 bond issue referendum didn't pass and I had direct involvement with that one. The issue, in my mind’s eye, was one of too limited of a scope of impact. The 2002 referendum, if I recall correctly, called for a new combined Starr-Stolley and that was it. The 2014 referendum called for seven projects covering the entire city and K-12 scope.

***

Front of the Independent newspaper from Sept. 10, 2014, declaring the bond issue a success.

THE VOTE AND RESULTS:

DR. ROB WINTER: If the bond issue had not been approved, the problems would still be there. I believe the most difficult part was weighing the district’s needs verses a realistic ask of the community. The moments before I knew the outcome, I was nervous, I truly believed the community would support the bond but until I knew for sure, I was nervous.

BONNIE HINKLE: The community volunteers who stepped up to lead the efforts of the bond campaign made the biggest difference. They were awesome. 

DAN PETSCH: I thought the vote would be successful because we took the proper amount of time to investigate the needs. We took 18 months to get the plan right before we went to vote. We knew our needs and listened to the public to make the plan better.

JEFF GILBERTSON: I remember working hard to get the clear, genuine word out to our great community. The door-to-door campaign was rewarding because we were able to have many one-on-one conversations that led to a deeper understanding of the purpose regarding the bond. 

JENNIFER WORTHINGTON: The committee relied on social media much more heavily than past bond efforts. In the past, there were piles of mailings; not the case in 2014.

TRACY NELSON: After the bond passed I was thankful and grateful the community supported the bond and the education and future of our kids.

LEE WOLFE: I jumped up and down for a while and then we all began to brainstorm needs and what plans would look like in the coming years for the additions and remodel.

JOHN HAUSER: Total relief. Our community stepped up and gave our school system the vote of confidence by passing a large bond to build several new elementary schools in our city.

BRIAN KORT: I was excited for what it would do for GIPS.  

JEFF GILBERTSON: Extremely proud of our community and their willingness to support our students. The vote exemplifies the trust our community has in us to make the right decisions for all students every day! 

JASON ZELASNEY: I was extremely relieved. I was so happy for our students! I was a little worried because I knew it was going to be a process and it would take time for our school to be done.

BECKY WAIND: Of course the passing of the bond was exciting knowing that I would get to have a brand new "forever school!" 

***

Construction begins.

READY FOR CONSTRUCTION:

DR. ROB WINTER: The moments after it passed, I thought 'OK, game on, we have five years to get this accomplished as promised.' 

BONNIE HINKLE: I think the board was concerned with the original plan of seven years to complete all projects. So when the community started to ask question it, we knew we had to shorten the time frame. 

JENNIFER WORTHINGTON: I remember being so relieved that GIPS would be able to take care of seven projects in a fairly short time frame and with funds that were realistic when one considered the magnitude of the projects.

VIRGIL HARDEN: I remember thinking 'the next five years are going to be a very heavy lift (i.e. “Uff da”).'

JENNIFER WORTHINGTON: I learned that having a strong board of education who is willing to share information with the public and listen to their input is so valuable to GIPS. The board held the conversations that needed to happen before the vote in order to give confidence to voters. I've also learned what a massive undertaking it was for a school district to do those seven projects as well as maintain all our other buildings in seven years. This entire process, spanning more than five years, could not have happened without a strong board of education and an incredible hard-working staff. 

DAN PETSCH: Seven projects in five years? (Laughing.) I remember thinking “this is a stupid idea. Don’t let non-construction people make decisions!" It was painful at times, but we made it work in the end. 

VIRGIL HARDEN: What sticks out about this process is the enormity of the work involved throughout the organization from end to end. All were asked to step up and do extra work to make it happen.

DR. ROB WINTER: Clearly the logistics of moving students and the timing sequence necessary were significant concerns in the overall success of the bond implementation.

MICHAEL PERSAMPIERI (Stolley Park Elementary principal since 2015): I was proud that our district was taking a huge step for students and their learning environment.

DR. TAWANA GROVER (GIPS superintendent since 2016): When I came to Grand Island I was excited to join a community who was willing to support its public school district. Nothing says trust like passing a $70 million bond issue.

***

Engleman opens

ENGLEMAN:

The project: 14,000 sq. ft. addition to the north side of the building to increase the capacity of the school to four units. 

DAN PETSCH: Adding onto a busy building filled with students and staff working was difficult. We didn’t want to disrupt the school while it was in use. 

Shoemaker classroomJEN THADEN (Engleman Elementary principal since 2017): While I came to Grand Island and Engleman after the addition, I cannot imagine doing the work our staff and students do every day without the added classrooms and service areas. We now have the space so every student, every day is a success at Engleman!

TRACY NELSON: I absolutely love my classroom and the new wing at Engleman. It feels like home to me. 

***

Shoemaker Elementary

SHOEMAKER:

The project: Additions and remodel to make school a four-unit building, eliminate open-concept classrooms, upgrade the media center and create a safe and secure entrance. 

DAN PETSCH: Similar to Engleman, it was a busy building. We had to work during the school year to get things done. We had to create a temporary entrance, which made for a challenge. We were building on both sides of the building, while remodeling the existing space … all while the building was still operational with students and staff inside working.

LEE WOLFE: Now that we’ve lived in the school for a few years, we feel simply blessed! Our community stepped up and we are so grateful for the additions and remodels. The impact on safety and student services has been incredible to say the least.

DAN PETSCH: The cool thing at Shoemaker was the total transformation to a highly operational facility. It seems like an entirely new building because of the changes.

***

GISH 100-wing hallway

GRAND ISLAND SENIOR HIGH:

The project: Remodel 100 wing, including 17,500 sq. ft. of shop space left vacant when classes moved to Career Pathways Institute.

DAN PETSCH: Senior High had an aggressive schedule. Other than that, it wasn’t as difficult to finish. It had a few challenges of being an existing building and we had to update it. 

JEFF GILBERTSON: We are reminded daily of the gift the community has provided our students by voting "yes" in 2014. The 100-wing was upgraded just in the nick of time for our kids. We would simply not have enough classroom space if not for our mindful patrons who support our great schools. 

DAN PETSCH: We took an old, junky space and made it highly functional. 

***

BARR:

The project: 37,000 sq. ft. addition and 27,600 sq. ft. remodel to add additional classroom space, rework main office for a safe and secure entrance, new art, music and P.E. areas on the north side of school.

BRIAN KORT: It was especially exciting as Barr Middle School was part of the bond and was going to have a major addition and renovation that would allow Barr to address classroom and locker room issues. 

DAN PETSCH: Again, we were working on a school while it was in operation. We had to work in short sessions of time - summer break - on areas that we couldn’t do with kids in the school. It was painful. We were expanding areas like the offices, the cafeteria and the gym. These weren’t areas you could remodel while they were in use. It was a big project to do. We had two-and-a-half-month windows to do six months of work.

JOSUE COVARRUBIAS (Barr principal since 2018): I cannot imagine what it was like before the extra space. Asking teachers to share classrooms and materials, and adjusting schedules to allow this would be very difficult. Not to mention, we wouldn’t be giving students the best education we could provide with the extra space. With the updates to our building, we are better prepared to meet the needs of our kids daily.

DAN PETSCH: At Barr, we went in and transformed the old to now have safety like never before. 

***

STARR:

The project: Build new school at new location. Old school had open concept.

BONNIE HINKLE: The highlights for me were each time we were able to celebrate the opening of new additions or new buildings. The Starr groundbreaking was really special as well, with the school walking from the old location to the new. 

Starr constructionDAN PETSCH: Starr was easier. It was more of a design challenge. We were creating a building that was large enough for four units and additional programming space for things like preschool. Paying for the big school was hard. It was needed. But it was stressful at the time.

JOHN HAUSER: I am grateful for our new school every time I walk into the building.  I still have a sense of pride that our community supported us with this bond issue.

DAN PETSCH: Starr was fun because we picked what we were going to do out of four different options by the designers. It was a very unique school. There were lots of challenges, but the structure is modern and cool for kids. It was the first precast construction project and really changed how we do buildings. Since then, all of our new buildings have been precast.

***

The inside of the old Stolley Park during demolition.

STOLLEY PARK:

The project: Tear down old school and build new school on location. During the construction process, students and staff were joined with Starr Elementary in their new building for two years.

BONNIE HINKLE: The tearing down of the old Stolley Park was bittersweet. The building had served its purpose, but the building held special memories for our family. While the school is the people and not the building, the building is a tangible reminder. The kids and staff deserve the new one that is more functional.

Inside the new Stolley Park.DAN PETSCH: It was a challenge because of the site and the size for the school. Purchasing property around the school made that issue go away. We were able to rework some streets for better traffic access. The old building was too close to the street, so we had to get away from Stolley Park Road. 

MICHAEL PERSAMPIERI: My best memory of the two schools joined together is watching students from the two schools, that typically wouldn't have known each other, flourish in relationships. 

JOHN HAUSER: The two schools coming together under one roof couldn't have gone more smoothly. It was the separating after being together for two years that was difficult. We were a true "neighborhood" school and all the students and staff blended together as one community.

DR. TAWANA GROVER: The two schools together set the tone, really, for the entire district. We are better together and these school communities demonstrated that.

BECKY WAIND: There was definitely some anxious feelings about joining Starr and losing my identity as a Stolley Park Panther for two years, but it turned out okay.

DAN PETSCH: Stolley Park is new and it is awesome. The last school was in such bad condition. This one is set to last another one hundred years or so.

BECKY WAIND: My feeling now? OVER THE MOON WITH EXCITEMENT! I cannot express just how much I LOVE LOVE LOVE my school!

***

Old Jefferson during demolition.

JEFFERSON:

The project: Tear down old open-concept school and rebuild on location. During the construction process, students and staff used the old Starr Elementary. Students were bused to the location and back every day for two years.

DAN PETSCH: Jefferson was a design challenge because of the small footprint of land we were working on. We were able to purchase some property around the school to improve the traffic flow in and around the school. It because a much safer situation. It was an aggressive schedule because it was on the clock to get done before the five-year timeline was over.

First day of school in Jefferson Elementary.SHEREE STOCKWELL (Jefferson Elementary principal since 2017): The toughest part was uprooting our school community and adjusting to a different, unfamiliar building and area across town. 

BONNIE HINKLE: The temporary placement of the kids of Jefferson and Stolley Park was one thing that worried me during the process - especially Jefferson with the busing required. Thanks to all the GIPS staff who made the process a success and to the parents for being flexible.

JASON ZELASNEY: The hardest part of the construction was having to pack up and move to the old Starr building. Some people think it’s easy to just pack up your school and go to a different location for two years. It was extremely challenging. We had to deal with busing and extra duties as teachers. Also, we lost a lot of our families because they wanted their kids to go to schools that were closer or they didn’t want their students to be bused to the school. It also hurt our after school clubs numbers.

DR. TAWANA GROVER: I can’t say enough about the impact the staff’s willingness to be flexible had on the success of the Jefferson project. This was such a crucial part of the process and their positivity toward helping kids succeed despite the tough two-year transition period was so important.

SHEREE STOCKWELL: It was worth the wait! Our staff, students, and families are enjoying the learning environment. We look forward the memories we will make here!

JASON ZELASNEY: It’s amazing now! Our classrooms are all so nice. It’s so good to have an actual door and real walls. One of the coolest things was seeing our students’ faces when they walked into the new Jefferson or into their new classroom. Priceless! We have had many former staff and alumni come back to check out the new school. They are all in shock with how nice it is and how much room we have.

DAN PETSCH: This school is a luxury, but it is what the students need and deserve. 

***

Inside Starr Elementary.

ALL COMPLETE:

DR. TAWANA GROVER: I am so incredibly proud of the finished products. We have safe schools. We have modern learning environments. We have space in schools we certainly didn’t have before. I’m not sure where we would be without the community’s belief in what we are doing and the trust we would get these seven projects completed as asked. Our staff was amazing through these five years, never taking their attention and focus off of the most important issue: our students. And our students were great, too. They get the reward of thriving inside beautiful buildings! Grand Island will benefit from this project for decades to come.

DAN PETSCH: Other than the things you don’t know until you know, I think we did everything the way we should have done them. There is not a lot I would change in how we did things. It was the best we could do - between our designers, GIPS staff, principals - in five years. Our staff put up with a lot so we could accomplish what we did in five years. The designers at Cannon Moss Brygger Architects were incredible. 

First day at new Stolley Park.JENNIFER WORTHINGTON: All of the projects were desperately needed. I look at especially Stolley Park and Jefferson and am so happy that we were able to get rid of buildings that were old and did not meet our educational needs. We still have building needs in the district but with the new Stolley Park and Jefferson our buildings are wonderful, bright, safe spaces for students and staff.

VIRGIL HARDEN: I’m most proud of the community for investing in their children!

TRACY NELSON: Thank you Grand Island for enriching our students’ learning environments and for making our school a place they are proud of.

JEN THADEN: Thank you to Grand Island for the Engleman addition. Thank you for investing in our kids. 

JASON ZELASNEY: I honestly don’t think I can thank them enough! Because of the community, my students have a safe place to go each day. Because of the community, my students have the school they deserve. I appreciate everything they have done.

JOHN HAUSER: Thank you! The students and staff at Starr Elementary can't thank you enough for allowing us to have this fantastic education center.  

JEFF GILBERTSON: Thank you! Thank you for your belief in our students and the educators who serve them every day! The future of Grand Island Public Schools is bright because of you!

BRIAN KORT: Thank you for trusting GIPS with your YES vote. It has and will continue to have a major impact on our students and their learning.  

JOSUE COVARRUBIAS: I love our building. We have plenty of classroom space. Many classrooms are brand new or completely renovated. I am very appreciative of the community’s investment in our school district and educational system. Thank you so much!

LEE WOLFE: Thank you so much for your commitment and dedication to the students of our community's future and the staff members who work in our district!

BECKY WAIND: I hope all community members will take the opportunity to come out and see this gem when we have our open house. 'Thank you' doesn't really do justice to how I feel. 

SHEREE STOCKWELL: Thank you for your support and voting "yes" for our future!

MICHAEL PERSAMPIERI: We are blessed and thankful to the community for the new building. It is a beautiful place. Now it's time to push the work with students forward. 

BONNIE HINKLE: We have such gratitude because the community is so supportive of our school system. The strong message that is sent to students, all students, is that you are valued and your education matters. 

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