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Willmar, Minn., Schools to study facility needs in the fall

Large groups of children leave the school for their bus ride home Wednesday from Roosevelt Elementary School in Willmar. Crowded elementary buildings are one issue leading the district to undertake a facility study this fall. (Tribune photo by Ron Adams)

WILLMAR -- A facility study in the Willmar Public Schools will begin in early September and last through the fall.

The Willmar School Board this week discussed scheduling for the study.

The district conducted a similar study about six years ago, but the situation has changed since then.

Enrollment at that time was declining, and it has been increasing this school year. The bonds used to pay for the Willmar Senior High in the 1990s will be paid off in another year.

The district was reorganized several years ago -- some grades were shifted to different buildings, some programs were moved, and several aging, smaller buildings were closed.

St. Cloud architect David Leapaldt led the last study and has volunteered to lead the district through this study without collecting a fee.

"He's got good memories of working with Willmar and wanted to do it," Superintendent Jerry Kjergaard said at Monday's board meeting. Leapaldt was affiliated with a firm in St. Cloud during the last study in 2007.

At that time, a group of more than 30 citizens reached the conclusion that the district needed a new elementary school. Leapaldt and school officials scouted possible building sites and developed a tentative floor plan in 2008.

However, in the winter of 2009, discussion of a new school was scrapped due to tight budgets and a flagging economy.

In a phone interview this week, Kjergaard said the district's recent increase in enrollment has been unexpected, and the district has other facility needs, too.

One issue is having two elementary schools with more than 900 students each. "They're not the biggest buildings in the state, but they are among the top dozen or so," he said.

Other issues include outdated science classrooms at Willmar Middle School, small cafeterias in the elementary schools and preventive maintenance needs in other buildings.

"I don't know what we'll end up with" after the study," Kjergaard said. "I have no preconceived ideas."

To launch the effort, the School Board will turn the facility study over to Leapaldt and a group of about 40 community members. Some will be teachers, administrators or board members; others will be parents, business owners or other members of the community.

Leapaldt will lead the group through a series of small group discussions that will be presented to the entire group. Through discussion and voting, the group tries to reach a consensus.

The advantage of the effort is that it involves the community and helps keep the rest of the community informed, he said. "A plan created by the community and endorsed by the community is usually implemented by the community."

Leapaldt described how the process would work. In the first meeting, the group will receive background information about the district and its facilities. Two weeks later, the group would meet again to discuss the district's strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.

Future meetings would have the group discussing a vision for the future and trying to reach agreement on a common vision.

After five to six meetings, the group would develop an action plan to submit to the School Board.

If the meetings are held on a steady two-week schedule, the committee's work could be finished before the holiday break in December.

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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