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Willmar will probably ask voters to OK financing for a building project

WILLMAR — The Willmar School Board discussed balancing financial considerations with student needs in renovating and expanding its school buildings.

The board met Wednesday in a special meeting dedicated to facilities. The district will probably ask voters to pass a bond issue in a referendum to pay for a building project later this year or early next year.

A task force met last fall to study at the district’s needs. The group said the district needed to find a way to increase space for learning, physical education and fine arts.

The group recommended building a new middle school at the site of the district’s high school, and that idea is still being considered.

The board discussed the impact of moving to a different building for students at different ages. Cheryl Nash, director of teacher and learning, said research has shown that student achievement falls for students moving to a middle school after fifth grade.

An extra year in the “self-contained setting” of an elementary school classroom seems to help, she said. Achievement can fall for students going to a new school after sixth grade, too, but it’s not as dramatic.

The district currently has a 6-8 middle school.

Grade configuration varies among similar-sized districts, she said, and that’s often determined by enrollment shifts, the facilities available and financial capabilities of a district.

The board was able to tentatively narrow five options to two on Wednesday, based on information provided by architect Paul Youngquist of Architects Rego + Youngquist of St. Louis Park.

Youngquist said the district’s Kennedy and Roosevelt elementary schools are crowded, with about 900 students in each building. He termed Willmar Middle School “overcrowded.” Willmar Senior High has ample space for instruction, though it needs some remodeling to adjust to current instructional needs.

Superintendent Jerry Kjergaard said it would be important to look at the capacity of the community to fund a project and determine the proper timing for a vote. He said a survey of voters is planned.

Youngquist has said it might be possible to use other financing options for parts of the district’s projects, so they wouldn’t have to be part of a referendum.

A number of alternative plans were discussed by the task force and by the board and discarded already. Five potential plans were on the table at Wednesday’s meeting, and board members narrowed it to two options and asked Youngquist to refine his estimates for them.

The options to survive were Option D in which the district would build a new elementary school for early childhood through grade 5 and a new science wing at the 6-8 middle school. The estimated cost for that option would be about $40 million. That would include about $8 million of maintenance projects that have been put off. The estimate does not include land acquisition costs.

In Option F, the district would remodel the middle school into an E-6 building and build a 7-8 middle school next to the high school on land the district already owns. The estimated cost would be $49 million, including the $3 million for maintenance.

The board briefly talked about developing E-8 buildings to cut down on transitions from one building to another but decided it would be unworkable and too costly.

Asked about his preferences for the grade configuration, Middle School Principal Mark Miley said, “We’ll provide a quality education no matter what kind of configuration we have.”

No matter the age of the student, there’s always a transition period when moving to a new school, he said, but planning and staff can help “smooth it out.”

Board members discarded some plans because they didn’t bring early childhood classes into the elementary schools. Others were discarded because of grade configuration or failing to meet other needs.

The facilities task force also recommended that the district build a field house to give the high school and community more room for athletic events. Board member Laura Warne said she thought Youngquist’s estimate of $12 million for a field house might be high. She pointed out that the expanded YMCA in Willmar will have cost about $10.5 million when it’s done.

Youngquist said the size and amenities could be adjusted if necessary.

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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