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Willmar, Minn., Middle School science classroom remodel delayed; School Board says maybe next year

In this undated photo, students in Randy Frederickson’s seventh-grade science class reveal the contents of owl pellets in one of the Willmar Middle School science labs. The classrooms have not been updated since the 1960s and aren’t big enough for the number of students they serve. Tribune photo by Gary Miller

WILLMAR -- Science teachers at Willmar Middle School started packing as soon as school was out, preparing for a planned remodeling of their outdated classrooms.

After Monday's Willmar School Board meeting, they'll have to put everything back, because the project is off, at least for this year.

With only one bid, and that coming in higher than expected, the School Board rejected the bid and voted to delay action on the plan until school officials can take another look at the overall project. The bid for two rooms was $20,000 more than the money available, which had originally been intended to remodel four rooms.

However, board members did not let go of the project. They asked Superintendent Jerry Kjergaard and Middle School Principal Mark Miley to work on a comprehensive plan for the rooms that could be implemented in summer 2014.

Kjergaard and Miley have talked about the need for updated science rooms for several years. The rooms are nearly 50 years old and have inadequate space and outdated equipment. The plan included restoring gas service to the rooms, providing access to utilities at student work stations and using storage rooms to add space to classrooms.

Board members said they hoped a revamped plan and a different bidding schedule would bring more favorable prices next year.

Kjergaard and Business and Finance Director Pam Harrington suggested waiting until a facility study is completed next fall before making the improvements.

The delay in the project left the district with an unused $65,000 donation from Jennie-O Turkey Store. The grant was designated for the Middle School science rooms.

Kjergaard said he had contacted Jennie-O president Glenn Leitch about the potential delay. Leitch told him the district could keep the money as long as it was used for science instruction or science classroom improvements.

Board Chairman Nathan Streed asked how the project's budget had moved so far off course.

Kjergaard said estimates from a contractor's preliminary walkthrough of the project were low, and that made school officials believe they could remodel and update four of the school's six classrooms.

The money currently available is about $250,000, with $180,000 coming from the school district's capital outlay budget and the rest from donations.

With the early estimates, "We thought $250,000 might be fairly close," Kjergaard said.

When architect estimates were substantially higher, Middle School officials decided to seek bids to complete two rooms and to ask for alternate bids on other parts of the project, in case there was money left over.

The one bid set the total cost for remodeling two rooms at $314,000. The alternate work for the other two classrooms would have cost another $50,000.

The district is waiting to hear if the state Department of Education will allow the use of $42,000 in health and safety funding for some of the work. Even if that is approved, the base bid for two classrooms would be $22,000 over the full budget.

"I hate to get this close to the finish line" and not get any remodeling done, said board member Mike Reynolds.

Board member Mike Carlson said he wanted to see the project done and done properly.

"I think the teachers and students need it in the right way," he said. He didn't want a half-finished project to reflect negatively on Jennie-O or the school district, either, he added.

"I think we need to table it, but with a clear plan of what to do," Carlson said. Board members asked for a plan to update all six science rooms, not just two or four.

Harrington said the capital funding could be carried over to next year and would still be there for the project in a year.

"This is an investment that is going to help hundreds and thousands of kids," Reynolds said.

Outside the meeting, Miley and science department chairman Mike Dokkebakken said they were disappointed in the delay but hopeful work could begin in a year.

Dokkebakken said he was shocked when he saw the bid. He and his colleagues could have tried to raise more funds through donations, he said, but they had thought they had enough to get at least two rooms done.

"We were blown away by Jennie-O's generosity," Miley said, and were happy to hear the School Board's support for the project. "Walking out, it doesn't feel dead."

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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