It’s a bright and colorful place to learn, a useful and spacious place to hold a meeting, and a fortress to take refuge in a storm.

The Sparta Board of Education held a budget study session that included some teleconferencing moments before a grand opening celebration on Jan. 9.

Such an event, with a smart board displaying figures and charts on its screen and board of education members having enough room to spread out and still see the display would not have been possible before. It’s just one of many examples of how the new Sparta Early Childhood Center will be used as so much more than a preschool.

The preschool, community room and district office building is a tornado safe community room on the western edge of the Sparta Elementary/Sparta Middle School campus, at the intersection of Division Street and Highway 125.

Sparta Superintendent Rocky Valentine had a long list of people to thank at a ceremonial ribbon cutting ceremony.

“We do have a vast segment of our community, local businesses and entities in general that had a hand in helping us with this facility and being a part of our vision,” Valentine said.

Dr. Valentine explained that when a set of blue lights on the exterior of the building are lit up, it means the building is open to the public in its capacity as a tornado shelter.

Community safe rooms are specially designed and engineered structures, built to withstand 250 mile per hour winds, utilizing 14-inch precast concrete, reinforced glass in the windows and steel-reinforced doors. Walls and roof sections are built in such a way that they can withstand the impact of flying projectiles in a tornado.

“The precast blocks to make this are made in Ozark and Springfield, so they are locally made, which is great. They are going to meet that rating, that standard,” Valentine said.

Sparta, a town with a population of 1,900 living inside the city limits, previously had no FEMA-designated storm shelter. The next closest public shelters are in Ozark. The school district started pursuing the tornado safe room project in 2016. It first applied for the funding in 2017.

“This project at one point in time was kind of dead in the water, because the federal money wasn’t going to happen, and Sparta, as many of you know, didn’t have a FEMA building for a number of years,” Valentine said. “All the way back to Roy Blunt and Claire McCaskill writing a join letter a number of years ago—we didn’t know it happened—on our behalf.”

Valentine said that the Sparta Board of Education is still working to determine an exact dollar amount for the out-of-pocket costs of the building, which was originally estimated to cost about $2.1 million. The Sparta R-3 School District will pay close to 40 percent of the overall cost of the building and its furnishings and fixtures when the final payments are made.

Construction is funded largely through a $1.4 million federal grant, and the Sparta R-III School District is responsible for a 25 percent match, or about $350,000. That share, however, only funds the construction of the shell of the building and some expenses directly related to sheltering people from storms. The school district’s costs were projected to climb to about $1.25 million, because of some building costs not covered by the federal grant. There are no plans for the Sparta R-3 Board of Education to approach voters for funding in the form of a property tax levy increase at this time. 

Construction Services Group, which does business as the Marion Company, won the bid for the project. The company works out of Neosho.

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