SPRINGFIELD, Mo. – KOLR 10 Investigates the ongoing search for a new Pipkin Middle School site.
Springfield Public Schools was set to break ground on the new school just six weeks from now in January 2024 until the Board of Education unanimously withdrew from the multi-million-dollar real estate deal.
KOLR 10 Investigates obtained hundreds of emails through an open records request that reveal challenges in the quest for new land.
The search for 10+ acres of land began well before the issue was brought to Springfield voters ahead of the April 4, 2023 election.
Assemblies of God has unused space down the street
According to Springfield Public Schools, the district needs at least 10 acres for a new building, outdoor activities like sports facilities, parking, a bus lane, and safer traffic flow for student drop-off and pick-up.
In September 2022, email records show the district talked about buying up buildings Assemblies of God owns near the church’s headquarters on Boonville Avenue.
It’s 8.6 acres down the street from where Pipkin sits now.
SPS spokesperson Stephen Hall wouldn’t say if that piece of property is still under consideration.
“It really would not be appropriate for me to speculate about what options the district continues to pursue at this point,” said Hall.
The Nichols Park prospect
Records show SPS was looking at another property dating back to 2022. This plan would have utilized part of the Springfield-Greene County Park Board’s Nichols Park.
“There were some preliminary discussions about this middle school locating in Nichols Park and initially there was a lot of interest in that,” said Jenny Fillmer Edwards, the park board’s public information administrator.
Emails indicate those preliminary discussions took place over months. Then on February 28, 2023, the district found a conflict. Nichols Park receives federal funding through the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) that restricts how the property can be used.
“Parks that are developed with this LWCF funding are intended to be preserved through the generations in perpetuity,” said Edwards.
It means all of Nichols Park needs to stay open to the public during park hours, including opening access to the proposed school building. SPS leadership couldn’t reconcile the safety concern.
Dr. Grenita Lathan was frustrated the district dedicated so much time to a dead-end prospect.
KOLR 10 Investigates asked the district spokesperson if the parks made a mistake by not mentioning the funding restraints from the start.
“We had lots of conversations and green lights and thought that was going to work out really up until the last minute,” said Hall. “We were heartbroken it didn’t work out.”
E. Pythian property proves to be problematic
When the Nichols Park idea died another came to life seemingly at a critical moment.
Springfield Public Schools entered a contract to buy 20 acres of land on the eastern edge of the Pipkin Middle School attendance boundary in an industrial park near Division Street and Highway 65 at 3207 E. Pythian Street.
Springfield Public Schools publicized the deal five days before the April 4 election.
KOLR 10 Investigates reporter Lauren Barnas asked Hall if SPS rushed the sale in order to persuade taxpayers to vote ‘yes’ on Proposition S.
The district needed the issue to pass in order to get approval to use $220 million for school building renovations including $53 million to construct a new Pipkin Middle School. Prop S passed with more than 70% of the vote.
“No, I think it showed voters that we were delivering on a promise,” said Hall. “What we said was we would do everything possible to make sure we had secured a piece of property and announce where we planned to build before voters went to the polls.”
The district’s plans hit another snag in July 2023. The City of Springfield Planning and Zoning Commission voted against the sale.
“The school would stand out like a sore thumb in a place like this,” said Planning and Zoning member Betty Ridge.
“It’s almost dystopian,” her counterpart Eric Pauly said about the 20 acres on Pythian Street.
Emails show businesses like the BNSF Railroad and SMC Packaging had harsh words for Springfield Public Schools in private too.
The Springfield Public Schools Board of Education could have moved forward to buy the land on Pythian without a blessing from the Planning and Zoning Commission.
But by September, criticism over the deal brought SPS to its breaking point. The district announced it pulled out of the sale and would continue searching for a new spot to build Pipkin Middle School.
SPS lost $25,000 in earnest money for breaking its real estate contract with the landowners on Pythian. But Hall says other taxpayer money spent on design fees will be re-purposed once the district establishes a new location.
The promise to voters
The school district has until 2028 to finish the projects promised under Proposition S. District officials don’t anticipate needing to extend that deadline despite the setbacks.
If you have a story you’d like Investigative Reporter Lauren Barnas to look into, send her an email: firstname.lastname@example.org.