Ottumwa students board buses after school in courier file photo.

OTTUMWA — School board members voted to move ahead with a new elementary school during a sometimes testy meeting Monday. The debate has occupied much of the board’s time over the past several meetings, and this was no different.

The first question was what precisely the board was even voting on.

“We are voting on continuing the discussion on whether to build a new school,” said Leisa Walker, the board’s chair.

“I thought we were here to decide whether we were going to renovate or whether we were going to build a new school,” said Mike Dalbey.

Dalbey defended the work of the facilities committee, saying it had done a good job of showing the board the conditions of the current buildings and their needs. He emphasized that the board drew on a range of people in the district and their different experiences to come to its conclusion.

“It wasn’t one person making the decision. It wasn’t three board members making the decision. It was 12 people,” he said.

Michael Carpenter said there are still questions he doesn’t have an answer for. Location is one. He said the sites he has heard of, including those discussed in a closed session earlier in the evening, don’t match with the locations of the schools potentially being closed.

Carpenter told board members he did not oppose the concept, but didn’t want to make a decision when he still felt blind to critical information.

“I don’t think the burden should be on us to play 20 Questions to find out,” he said.

Superintendent Nicole Kooiker wanted to know what information Carpenter and Jeff Bittner, whose comments echoed Carpenter’s, needed. She noted the board will still have to approve multiple steps, including site, design and other features.

“If you guys already have your minds made up I don’t want to jump through 5,000 hoops,” she said.

Dalbey made the most passionate defense of moving ahead with the building, saying Ottumwa “can’t live on the past ideas of philosophy or education.”

“If everyone wants to live in the past, that’s fine, because I can show you all of the data that we’re not moving forward at the pace we should.”

Bill Allen, who also served on the committee, told fellow board members the recommendation they made was done after long consideration.

“We didn’t do it lightly. We spent a lot of time, a lot of hours,” he said.

The vote to proceed was 5-2 in favor, Bittner and Carpenter opposed.

Board members also approved the school resource officer agreement for officers at the high school and middle school. The city approved the agreement last week.

The district’s handling of the negotiations won Kooiker praise from board members.

“I think Nicole did an excellent job saving the school district some money on this situation,” Allen said.

— Matt Milner can be reached at and followed @mwmilner


Matt Milner currently serves as the Courier's Managing Editor. Milner is a trained weather spotter and is usually outside if there are storms. He joined the Courier in 2002.