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Willmar School Board taking its time to discuss all options for facility needs

WILLMAR — The Willmar School Board is seeking more information about alternatives as it moves closer to making a decision about the future of the district’s facilities.

The board had a special meeting Thursday at noon to discuss options which include building a new middle school next to Willmar Senior High and then remodeling the existing middle school into an elementary school, or building a new elementary school in the community.

Preliminary cost estimates range from $40 million to nearly $50 million.

The board is discussing facilities as an effort to deal with crowded and aging buildings.

The board has not made any final decisions about how to proceed or what to ask voters to approve in a special election either this fall or next winter.

The district’s ongoing maintenance program keeps its buildings in good repair, but some large capital improvement projects are on the horizon.

In addition, the two K-5 elementary schools have about 900 students each, placing them among the largest elementary schools in the state.

Adding a third elementary school would ease crowding and give the district three 600-student schools.

Willmar Middle School, with grades 6-8, is also at capacity and could see an increase in enrollment in the future, as the larger elementary grades age.

The Senior High is the only one of the district’s four major facilities that has adequate capacity, but the 20-year-old building needs a new roof, which could cost more than $3 million.

The schools also need some remodeling to adjust to current instructional needs.

At their last facilities meeting, board members had sought more information from architect Paul Youngquist about potential costs of building a new elementary school or a new middle school.

After looking at Youngquist’s latest information, the board had still more questions about how grades would be configured and what types of facilities are needed for each building.

Board members asked Youngquist to provide more information about the alternatives of building a 6-8 or 7-8 middle school at the high school site.

A task force studying the facilities last fall recommended a new 7-8 middle school with sixth-graders returning to elementary school.

Superintendent Jerry Kjergaard said that adding sixth-graders could contribute to further crowding in the elementary schools.

Still undecided is how to configure early childhood programs. The task force had recommended placing early childhood programs at each elementary school, but the board has discussed whether that is practical.

Cost estimates were provided for the option of a new elementary school or new middle school, along with major maintenance projects and remodeling for instructional benefit. The estimate for an elementary school plus maintenance, remodeling of other buildings and a science room expansion at Willmar Middle School was $39.95 million.

A new middle school plus maintenance and remodeling of other buildings was estimated at $48.4 million.

Those estimates could change as the board makes more decisions.

Board members said they wanted to do what was best for students, while also looking at costs.

Kjergaard has said that the board also needs to consider the community’s capacity to pay for a project, too.

The building decision is a “30-year decision” that will set the tone for the district for a long time to come, 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

(320) 214-4340