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School Board now to decide the next steps in determining facilities needs

WILLMAR — It’s up to the Willmar School Board now to decide the next step in an effort to improve its school facilities.

At its Monday meeting, the board received the recommendations of a task force that recommended building a new middle school next door to Willmar Senior High.

The board also welcomed new member Laura Warne on Monday. She was appointed to complete the term of Dan Croonquist who resigned late last year.

Officers for 2014 will be Mike Carlson, chairman; Liz VanDerBill, vice chairwoman; Jackie Saulsbury, clerk; and Mike Reynolds, treasurer.

The board listened to a report from architect David Leapaldt about the work of a task force that met from September through December last year to develop a 10-year plan for the district’s facilities. Leapaldt, a St. Cloud architect, had volunteered to work with the task force.

Leapaldt explained the process the task force used to analyze the district’s facilities and their maintenance needs. The group also discussed the district’s strengths and weaknesses and looked at the challenges and opportunities they represent.

Other topics included whether the district’s buildings are able to accommodate current educational needs, possible changes in grade configurations among school buildings, and cafeteria and gymnasium needs.

The task force was unanimous in feeling that the district needs to do something to address its buildings, which are crowded and have inadequate cafeteria and gym facilities.

At the task force’s last meeting, the majority of the group proposed a new middle school for grades 7 and 8 to be built near Willmar Senior High. A minority favored a proposal for a new building for children in early childhood programs through grade 1.

Both plans include doing top priority maintenance work on buildings and remodeling to update and improve each facility. Another common component was a field house at the site of Willmar Senior High to improve athletic facilities. Both plans would also propose closing Jefferson Learning Center and moving its programs to other buildings.

Architects working with the group provided some rough estimates of what some of the ideas would cost. A new building would cost about $35 million, and the top priority maintenance would cost about $8 million. A field house would cost about $12 million.

Board members had several questions, which were answered by Leapaldt and several task force members attending the meeting.

Reynolds asked about the benefits of moving middle school students to the high school campus. Superintendent Jerry Kjergaard said the proximity of the schools could open the door to more specialized classes or advanced classes and to sharing programs. “Your options are limited only by your imagination.”

Reynolds also asked why the middle school proposed was for just two grades.

Board member Linda Mathiasen, who served on the task force, said the task force was conscious of not proposing additional space the district doesn’t need, and a three-grade school would probably be too large.

Kjergaard said the board will need to make decisions fairly soon if a building plan is to be presented to the district’s voters later this fall.

Board members agreed that they might need to meet several times in the next month or two to discuss the task force report, but no dates were set.

Business and Finance Director Pam Harrington told the board that total enrollment as of last Friday was 4,109 students, nearly 100 students fewer than a year ago at the same time. Harrington said the higher enrollment of a year ago appears to have been an anomaly.

Board members asked Harrington if she knew where the 100 students had gone. “A lot of them just move,” she said.

The district tracks open enrollment numbers, and the number of students enrolling in neighboring districts has been steady. “We like to see that,” she said.

The district hasn’t surveyed families who use open enrollment to go to other districts for about 10 years, said Kjergaard. He said it might be a good idea to do another survey. VanDerBill suggested surveying the families who come to Willmar’s schools, too.

The board approved two labor agreements. The food and nutrition services bargaining unit will receive raises of pay and benefits equaling 5.2 percent in the first year and 2.9 percent in the second year of the two-year agreement a total increase of 8.1 percent over the life of the contract.

The bargaining unit for special education paraprofessionals, sign language interpreters and job coaches will receive increases in pay and benefits totaling 4.6 percent in the first year and 3.7 percent in the second year for a total increase of 8.3 percent over the two year contract.

Carlson said the district had “fallen behind” in compensation for some bargaining units, and these agreements would help remedy that situation.


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

(320) 214-4340