Mon. Jan. 27, 2020

The special meeting of the Board of Directors convened at 6 p.m. at the Columbia Public Library for a presentation by representatives from the new Boone County Nature School project.

Present: John Besser, Bill Mees, Doug Miller, Eric Seaman, Laura Hillman, Eric Wood, Jean Neely, Allison Vaughn, Nancy Bedan. Representing the Nature School project: Roger Still (Community Initiatives Network), Mike Szydlowski (Columbia Public Schools, Science Coordinator), Brian Flowers (Missouri Department of Conservation, MDC Central Region Outreach & Education Supervisor)

Roger S provided an overview of the project. Project partners have been working for several months, but planning is still in progress for some fundamental aspects of the project. The project has been made possible by the generosity of Hank Waters and his wife, Vicki Russell, who donated property for the school to the Department of Conservation. According to the Memorandum of Understanding adopted by MDC and the Columbia Public Schools, MDC owns the property, which will be leased to CPS for $1 a year for 40 years. CPS has committed $2 million for construction of the school and is responsible for design and construction with MDC review. MDC has committed $1 million for infrastructure design and construction and overall development of the property. The project partners are raising an additional $1.5 million to complete the project. Roger has been contracted by the Missouri Conservation Heritage Foundation to help with planning and fundraising. He noted that several organizations and individuals have already committed funds to the project.

The architect has just been engaged, and the building has not been designed yet. The structure, however, is expected to be very similar to the school that was proposed for Rock Bridge Memorial State Park in 2014, and that floor plan is being used as a model in discussing the current nature school project.

Mike S presented program plans for the Nature School. Every fifth-grade student will visit the school twice. During their initial three-day visit, students will engage in place-based based learning; discovery and explorations; gaining historical and cultural perspectives; and developing a project to improve their regular school; in addition, students will spend one day at the Boone County History & Culture Center, for history exploration and cultural/art activities. During the second three-day visit, students will focus on place-based learning, discovery and explorations; historical and cultural perspectives; and presentation of their school place-based improvement project. The curriculum is designed to immerse kids in their environment. Classes will visit the Nature School in the same order for both visits, so that students who come in August will also come in January. The program will follow the MDC Discover Nature Schools curriculum and incorporate additional areas of study. We want kids to complete the program and leave thinking they can make a difference, Mike said.

The program will be open to all students in Boone County. Representatives from the Centralia, Hallsville and Southern Boone County school districts have been informed about the project and are interested in participating. The Nature School will operate every day and will be designed to accommodate 100 students a day in four classrooms. Additional students can be involved in field trip activities at the same time, using other facilities on the property. Each classroom will have a theme (forest room, river room, etc.); a wet lab/multipurpose room and a “home kitchen” also are planned for instructional use. The Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture is a partner in the project, and will house their Farm to School educator at the site.

Brian F said the new property adjoins the Three Creeks Conservation Area and has been designated as the “Waters-Russell unit” of the conservation area. The family will convey two additional parcels to MDC in the future. He described the natural features of the property, which includes both prairie and karst terrain. He noted that there are numerous caves, such as Hunter Cave and Tumbling Cave, two ponds, and many opportunities for recreation on the property. An existing 7/8-acre field of elderberries is harvested commercially. MDC plans to convert several areas of pasture to prairie, create a pollinator plot on the property, and construct a trail system. The department is already removing invasive plants on the property. Brian also discussed the numerous historical aspects of the site, which is located on Tom Bass Road. He explained that Tom Bass was born a slave on the Forest Hill plantation, which was located on the nearby Charles Green Conservation Area, and became a world-renowned horseman.

Brian noted that MDC currently is discouraging hiking on the property because there is no parking. He also said that plans for an area forested by white pines and some tulip poplars will be determined by MDC foresters. The flat field on the site made it particularly attractive for construction of the school.

Roger S said that, since the architect has just begun work on the school plans, the green construction features haven’t been identified yet. He said they don’t plan to pursue LEED Certification because of the expense; however, they will consider various green building elements. The project architect is Chris Davis, principal of the PWArchitects firm in Columbia. Dr. Laura Cole, assistant professor in the MU Department of Architectural Studies and an authority on green construction, also will provide input on the project.

Roger described two other project structures that the Columbia Audubon Society might be interested in funding, or helping to fund. The first is a pavilion that would be located on a hiking trail and used by Nature School students and other visiting groups. The pavilion constructed at Prairie Forks Conservation Area in 2012 is being considered as a model. That structure is 24’ x 40’ and has a concrete floor, electricity and ceiling fans. Roger estimated the current cost of constructing a similar structure is $50,000.

A second possibility is a circular, more rustic “council house” facility, which could provide shelter for 130 students. Mike S and CPS students enjoyed using a similar facility during the recent fifth-grade field trip to Great Smoky Mountain National Park. The cost of constructing this type of shelter is estimated to be about $30,000.

Roger S said that Columbia Audubon would have the right to name the council house facility for a $30,000 donation. CAS would also be considered a project partner and would be invited to participate in the project groundbreaking ceremony, which is scheduled for March 31, 2020.

In answer to board member questions, Roger said that a contribution could be made in the form of a  pledge and paid in increments. Payments would be made to the Community Foundation of Central Missouri for the benefit of the Nature School. He also offered to provide additional pictures of a prototype of the council house structure. CAS President John Besser said it would be good to see a coalition of nature-based groups, such as Audubon, Native Plant Society, and Master Naturalists, get together to support the Nature School project.

The Nature School representatives left, and CAS board members continued to discuss the project, options presented for CAS support, and steps necessary to reach a decision on a Nature School contribution.

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Some board members expressed concerns about how much of the curriculum would be dedicated to general nature education as well as the large contribution suggested. Others said that CAS and other groups supporting the project should not expect to have much input into the curriculum; CPS will develop a curriculum that aligns with state science education standards.

Board members generally agreed that the more-rustic “council house” would appeal to CAS membership and better represented the spirit of the Columbia Audubon than the traditional shelter.

John B said he supported contributing CAS funds for construction of the shelter and specifically funds received from the Joseph “Bo” Koster estate in 2012. The shelter could be called the “Koster Audubon Shelter” in honor of the CAS benefactor. John said, if the board and membership agree to fund the shelter construction, he would like to reach out to the Koster family. Eric S said that Bo Koster’s brother and sister live in the St. Louis area. John B noted that CAS has not spent any of the gift principal funds, which are invested conservatively. Contributing to the county-wide nature school seems to be an appropriate and wise use of the Koster gift, he said.

Other board members noted that CAS could commit $30,000 to the Nature School and still have a substantial financial cushion. Others favored committing to $10,000 a year for three years. Eric S advised making a one-time contribution now, given the current, positive market conditions. Doug M noted that the project cost would be $750 per year over the term of CPS’ 40-year lease.

Members noted that the shelter would give Columbia Audubon considerable visibility and help attract members.

Board members discussed the steps that should be taken before voting on the proposed expenditure. In summary, John B will draft a proposal for funding the shelter, which will be considered at the Jan. 15 board meeting. With board input and support, the proposal would be published in the February “Chat” and voted on by membership at the Feb. 19 meeting. CAS by-laws require 20 members to be present for a vote. A mail-in vote might also be possible.

The meeting was adjourned at 8:40 p.m.