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Task force taking look at facilities at Willmar School District

WILLMAR — Willmar Public Schools are challenged by their facilities, which are crowded and inadequate in some cases, but they are strong in welcoming technology and in academic offerings, according to a task force studying the school district’s facilities.

The task force met last week to do an analysis of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats facing the district.

The group will meet through the fall to develop a 10-year plan for facilities in the school district.

Future meetings will be on Oct. 21, Nov. 4, and Dec. 2. All meetings begin at 4 p.m. and are held in the rehearsal hall of the Willmar Education and Arts Center, 611 Fifth St. S.W.

The Willmar School Board appointed the task force to look at the district’s facilities and to develop a plan for the future. Some of the main problems identified so far are crowded elementary schools with inadequate cafeteria and physical education facilities.

In addition to strength in technology, the group found strengths in Willmar’s steady economy and a community that’s supportive of its schools. The group saw opportunities in having the bonds nearly paid off for the high school and in possibilities of partnering with MinnWest Technology Campus.

On the flip side, the group saw weaknesses in the multiple, crowded lunch periods at elementary schools.

Another weakness is having buildings that are not flexible enough to adjust to modern instruction. Threats included a low-valued tax base and aging voters, also buildings that are not being used for their original purpose. An example is Kennedy Elementary, which is a former high school.

Another threat listed by the committee is having other school districts send buses into Willmar to pick up open enrollment students. Open enrollment is the process allowing public school students to attend school outside of the school district where they live.

Students from other districts attend school in Willmar via open enrollment, too, but Willmar does not send buses into other districts.

In discussing the pros and cons of the district’s buildings, task force members talked about the importance of communicating the district’s needs to the public.

David Leapaldt, the architect facilitating the task force, said members could get public input between meetings and bring that information back to the group. Leapalt, from IIW engineers and architects of St. Cloud, is volunteering his time to lead the meetings.

Task force members last week also received information about maintenance needs in some of the district’s facilities. They covered a broad range of projects, from smaller tasks like painting to major undertakings like reroofing or replacing heating and ventilation equipment.

The list of projects that could be needed in the next five years total about $8.8 million. Much of that cost would be in roofing projects and mechanical equipment, said Paul Youngquist, a partner at Architects Rego + Youngquist of St. Louis Park.

While the price tags might sound high, Leapaldt said, the cost per square foot puts the needs into some perspective.

Youngquist said new construction costs would be about $180 per square foot for an elementary school, $200 per square foot for a middle school and $225 per square foot for a high school.

The repair estimates were $1.5 million for the next five years for Roosevelt Elementary, $14.50 per square foot. For Kennedy Elementary, the estimate for needed repairs was $2 million, about $13.40 per square foot.

For Willmar Middle School, the repair estimate was $1.1 million, $7.03 per square foot, and for Willmar Senior High, the estimate was $3.3 million, or $12.52 per square foot.

In future meetings, group members will try to arrive at a shared vision for the future of the district’s facilities and to develop a report and recommendations for the School Board.

Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

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