The Ottumwa Courier

April 1, 2014

Construction could be halted on building class

Courier staff writer

---- — OTTUMWA — An Ottumwa High School program admired by the community may have to be temporarily suspended.

The board and administration has nothing against the Building Trades program, said Superintendent Davis Eidahl. But they would be hard pressed to defend the expense of a teacher for a construction class with, as of now, fewer than five students officially registered.

Tom Shafer of Ottumwa, a board member for Habitat for Humanity, says he wants to see the program continue. Not only is it good for young people, he said, but when students work on a Habitat home, everyone wins.

Though a school board meeting was held in closed session Monday, it did invite Shafer and several others to provide input into its decision-making process, which would be on whether or not to renew the construction teacher's contract next year.

"I talked to them about keeping the program," Shafer said. "I'm concerned."

But they are keeping that vocational course, Eidahl said, and weren't trying to do away with it.

"We all agree with Tom," Eidahl added. "It's a great program."

But enrollment numbers indicate they may not be able to host it this coming year. Eidahl explained that the state of Iowa requires districts to tell teachers by April 15 they won't be needed next year. So even with that as a possibility, he said, they have to vote and inform the teacher now. Otherwise, they have a teacher in an empty classroom.

"That's the dilemma we're in," Eidahl said.

If, a day or a week or a month after the vote, there is a rush of students signing up, the district could call the instructor and request that they get ready to teach again.

"We're not cancelling the program," Eidahl emphasized.

Shafer said he’s hopeful.

The "construction" program gives students hands-on training in various skills used to maintain or even build a home: basic wiring, putting in sheet rock, remodeling a bathroom.

The course was originally designed for students who were at risk of either dropping out or flunking standard lecture classes. Soon, however, everyday students discovered the value of being able to fix up a house or work in a skilled trade. And true to the program's original intent, some kids who had difficulty memorizing a book said they found themselves excelling, learning by doing.

Recently, Habitat for Humanity, which has been short of volunteers, had received help from the building trades program. And the building trades program, short on projects, partnered with Habitat. Habitat officials, who provide construction materials while the school provides student contractors, say this is one of Ottumwa's finest win-win situations.

Shafer said he wasn't shy about sharing that opinion with the school board. He said he felt good about his presentation Monday but told the Courier, "I am still concerned."

Now, said Eidahl, board members have a tough decision: Choose one way and they've put a valued teacher out of work, even if it is temporary, and the program doesn't happen next year. The other way, they could be wasting money for a teacher without students. Perhaps the board will discover a third, better option as they ponder "many factors," Eidahl said, related to their final decision.

There has been no official vote by the board yet, he said.

"They're writing a finding statement. Their decision will be made and announced in an open meeting within five days of Monday evening's hearing," Eidahl said.

— News reporter Mark Newman is on Twitter @couriermark