Citizen task force recommends new elementary school be built in Willmar

WILLMAR -- A citizen task force will recommend that the Willmar School Board consider building a new elementary school and close several older, smaller schools in the district.

WILLMAR -- A citizen task force will recommend that the Willmar School Board consider building a new elementary school and close several older, smaller schools in the district.

The task force spent more than three hours discussing its final suggestions to the board. About 25 members of the task force participated in the meeting at the Willmar Education and Arts Center.

The task force's recommendation will be presented to the School Board at 4:30 p.m. Oct. 8 during the board's regular meeting.

After the discussions, architect David Leapaldt, president of GLT Architects of St. Cloud, told the group that his preliminary calculations indicated that the plan could cost $37 million or more to make repairs to existing buildings and build a new elementary school.

Leapaldt's firm was hired by the School Board to lead the task force's discussions, which started in June.


The task force had been charged with developing a long-range plan for the district's facility needs. The board appointed the task force after two years of discussion about long-term maintenance. A study indicated that the district needs to spend about $18 million on maintenance and improvements.

Another consideration was enrollment. After a decade of decline, enrollment in Willmar has stabilized at about 4,100 students and is expected to begin to climb in the next few years. Projections indicate that all school buildings could be at capacity in 10 years.

Working in small groups over several meetings, the task force started with four very different plans. All proposed building a new school, ranging from an elementary school to a high school. Over time, they arrived at a consensus for a K-12 plan that included closing Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln elementary schools and building a new elementary school to replace them.

However, the board will see a variety of suggestions about how to handle the alternative high school, early childhood, adult education and community education programs.

In its discussions, the group pictured a new elementary school that would be like two schools, with a shared commons area between them.

Leapaldt asked them to suggest sites around town. They included different parts of vacant land southeast of the current Lincoln site and near the YMCA in southeast Willmar, along County Road 5 north of Highway 12, or somewhere in the Lakeland Drive/Civic Center Drive area.

When Leapaldt worked out some preliminary cost projections for the combined cost of maintenance needs and building a new school, the total varied from $37 million to $42.5 million, depending on the overall plan. The new school would cost $20.5 million plus land costs.

The room was quiet after he listed the costs. The "sticker shock" isn't surprising, Leapaldt told them. He avoids talking about money earlier in the process, because it can hinder other discussions, he said.


"I think as a group you've done an excellent job," he said. "The problem with numbers is if you put them out up front, you don't do any of the other work."

As the group prepared to disband, Superintendent Kathy Leedom thanked them for their work.

"Our community, our school district is very fortunate to have people like you who are willing to give up this amount of time for children, for young people," she said. "A lot of planning that we're doing is for children who aren't even born yet. ... It really is an unselfish gift that you've given."

Once the board gets the recommendation, board members will need to decide if they want to ask the voters to approve part or all of the plan, Leedom said.

Two board members participated on the task force, including Chairman Mike Carlson. He said he was pleased that community members had come together on a basic plan.

"We still have a lot of work to do, and by no means is this done," he said. "We still have to sit down as a board and talk. ... Whatever we do, education is going to be the priority."

Board member Dion Warne agreed. "If we can deliver education better in a new building, that needs to be a topic of conversation," he said.

What To Read Next
Get Local