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Willmar School District task force to develop 10-year facility plan

WILLMAR — A task force working to develop a 10-year facility plan for Willmar Public Schools kicked off a series of meetings this week.

About 30 people attended the group's first meeting. They received information about the district's finances and the current facilities.

Six years ago, a similar task force studied facilities when the challenge for the district was declining enrollment and aging buildings. The task force recommended a new elementary building, but changes in the economy led the district to expand one of its elementary buildings and reorganize the grade levels at three schools instead.

Now, enrollment has grown, and the district's school buildings are becoming crowded. In the elementary schools, the cafeterias and gymnasiums are inadequate for the number of children who must be served. Another facility concern is the outdated and inadequate science labs at the Middle School.

Superintendent Jerry Kjergaard and architect David Leapaldt introduced the group to the process.

Leapaldt told the group they would look at possibilities and not worry about how to fund an idea.

"Actually, I think your job is to dream," Kjergaard said. "I would expect you to have your head in the clouds a little bit."

Once the work is done, the School Board will receive the final report. "They will determine the appropriate funding sources."

Five more meetings will be held — Sept. 30, Oct. 21, Nov. 4, Dec. 2 and Dec. 16, all at the Willmar Arts and Education Center rehearsal hall.

Business and Finance Director Pam Harrington provided a brief overview of school finance and enrollment projections during the first meeting this week.

The district expects to finish the current school year with about $5 million in undesignated reserve funds, about 10.5 percent of its annual general fund expenditures.

The district still owes about $6 million in principal and interest on the bonds for Willmar Senior High, which is nearly 20 years old. The bonds will be paid off in early 2015.

Enrollment has been fairly steady between 4,050 and 4,100 students for several years, with small fluctuations from year to year, Harrington said.

However, enrollment climbed above 4,200 last year, taxing the capacity of many of the district's facilities.

The district receives nearly $6,000 in basic education funding for each student, she said.

"A lot of the money that comes into the general fund has to do with enrollment," she said. "From a facilities standpoint, we need to be able to accommodate these students."

Leapaldt is leading the task force, as he led the one six years ago. Because he had worked with the school district before, Leapaldt volunteered to facilitate this year's task force at no charge. He works for a different firm now than he did six years ago.

Also working with the group is Paul Youngquist, a partner at Architects Rego + Youngquist of St. Louis Park.

Youngquist outlined an estimate of the capacity of the school's buildings. The total capacity of the four largest buildings is 4,016. The district has programs at several smaller sites, including an alternative high school and a youth detention center.

The enrollment in the four largest buildings was 3,917 in the last school year, with about 160 students at the other sites.

Youngquist said the task force needs to look at the capacity of cafeterias and gymnasiums, which are inadequate in the elementary schools. They also need to look at the needs of 21st century learning.

Lunch times at Kennedy Elementary range from 10:30 a.m. to 1:45 p.m., he said. That and the cafeteria at Roosevelt were designed for fewer students than the buildings now hold.

Gym space is another problem. "Your kids are going to gym about half as much as I think you'd like them to go, and it's because of a shortage of space," Youngquist said.

The task force will also be looking at maintenance issues in all the buildings, he said. "When you have a thousand kids walk through your living room every day, things wear out."

Youngquist said they would continue studying how the school buildings are used currently.

Asked by a task force member, Leapaldt said a school could last 80 to 100 years, but there are many variables.

A building can look good on the outside, but it can have rusty pipes, inadequate ventilation, poor lighting and other problems. "There comes a point where there are just too many big projects to do," he said.

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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