Need for more gym space could lead to pool closing at Willmar Middle School

The Building and Grounds Committee of the Willmar School Board discussed filling the Middle School's pool to turn the area into a second gym. The issue will be on the March 13 board meeting agenda.

group of swimmers in a pool
The Willmar Cardinals swimming and diving team are shown on the first day of practice at the Willmar Middle School swimming pool Aug. 12, 2019, in this photo from the team's public Facebook page.
Contributed / Willmar Swimming and Diving Facebook page

WILLMARWillmar Public Schools officials continue to look for ways to add physical education space at Willmar Middle School.

Jeff Holm, Willmar Superintendent
Contributed / Willmar Public Schools

The latest plan could involve closing and filling in the school’s swimming pool to build space for another gym. The stage area between the current gym and the pool area would be developed into a fitness center.

The School Board’s Buildings and Grounds Committee discussed the idea at a meeting Thursday morning. It will be on the agenda for discussion at the board’s March 13 regular meeting.

“The ultimate goal was to get more instructional space for physical education,” Superintendent Jeff Holm said.
So school officials began looking for ways to work with the space that is already available.

Holm and others walked through the building with contractors and architects and came up with the plan discussed Thursday. Other ideas were scrapped because they would have interfered with load-bearing walls or would have caused other structural issues.


The pool is seldom used, according to Holm and board members, and it’s been difficult to hire people to staff the pool. The district spends $25,000 or more to maintain the pool each year.

Board member Mike Reynolds said the pool was once the only pool in the community, but that’s no longer the case.

The project could be funded using some of the pandemic relief aid from the federal government. The district has received nearly $17 million in aid during the pandemic. Much was designated for specific programs — providing safety equipment for controlling the spread of the coronavirus, hiring nurses and hiring social workers and others to help students cope with disrupted school schedules and learning loss.

Some of the other funding has been more flexible. About $4 million earmarked for Willmar Schools remains and can be used through Sept. 30, 2024, said Kathryn Haase, director of business and finance.

Kathryn Haase.jpg
Willmar Public Schools Business and Finance Director Kathryn Haase

Haase said state officials have approved the district using the $4 million to pay employees this year, an approved use. The district would be able to use the money it would have paid employees to fund the middle school improvements.

The work to develop a new gym and the fitness center would cost about $2.5 million, said Aaron Pilarski, buildings and grounds manager. The remaining money would be used to tackle projects on the school’s long-term maintenance list, like redoing the tennis courts and making parking lot improvements.

Before the pandemic, the school district and the West Central Southwest Service Cooperative had planned to work together to build an addition at the southeast corner of the Middle School.

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The district would have built a gym and classrooms for a small middle school-age alternative school. The co-op had planned to build a facility for high needs special education students who need to be in a separate school program for all or most of the school day.


However, multiple stumbling blocks having to do with the pandemic and with legislative inaction killed the joint project.

The co-op is looking for funding and a space for its new facility. It operates a small program for high needs students in Willmar, but it isn’t large enough to meet the needs of the area.

No school district in the region has enough students to operate its own facility so the co-op has developed regional centers. Without an adequate regional center in the Willmar area, some students ride a bus an hour or more each way to go to school.

In 42 years in the newspaper industry, Linda Vanderwerf has worked at several daily newspapers in Minnesota, including the Mesabi Daily News, now called the Mesabi Tribune in Virginia. Previously, she worked for the Las Cruces Sun-News in New Mexico and the Rapid City Journal in the Black Hills of South Dakota. She has been a reporter at the West Central Tribune for nearly 27 years.

Vanderwerf can be reached at email: or phone 320-214-4340
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