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Willmar Middle School expansion may still happen, but not now

Willmar Middle School needs a new, larger gym, but plans to build one are on hold for now. Willmar Public Schools and Southwest West Central Service Cooperative had planned to build an addition to

Willmar Middle School teacher Scott Thompson speaks to his classroom of eighth-grade students on Tuesday, March 22, 2022.
Willmar Middle School teacher Scott Thompson speaks to his classroom of eighth-grade students in this file photo from March 22, 2022.
Macy Moore / West Central Tribune
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WILLMAR — A proposed addition to Willmar Middle School is on hold for now, but the idea most likely isn’t dead.

The Willmar School Board voted to reject bids on the project at its Monday meeting. The project has hit numerous roadblocks since early 2020.

The board needed to reject the bids since the project has been delayed.

“We may not be done,” Superintendent Jeff Holm said at the board’s Monday meeting. “I think this is a significant need for us.”

Holm said the Middle School has inadequate gym space, about 9.5 square feet per student, and the current gym doesn’t have room for a regulation basketball court.

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Willmar Superintendent Jeff Holm

Lakeland Elementary School has 19.5 square feet of gym space per student, the second-lowest among the district's buildings, Holm said.

The addition was planned as a joint project of Willmar Public Schools and the Southwest West Central Service Cooperative. It would have included a new gym and a small alternative learning center for the district. SWWC planned to build an Educational Learning Center for high-need special education students.

The cooperative’s part of the project would have served Level 4 special education students who find traditional school settings difficult to navigate.

The project appeared to have clear sailing in February 2020, with plans to begin construction that summer and open in September 2021.

Since then, the project has encountered repeated roadblocks.

The project was put on hold in March 2020 because of financial uncertainty related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Discussions began again in fall 2021, with the possibility of state bonding funds to help the cooperative pay for its part of the project.

The plan for the project was to use the school district’s nondesignated general fund balance to help fund the project, with the cooperative paying for its part of the project through lease payments.

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Cliff Carmody, Southwest West Central Service Cooperative
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Bonding money would have eased the burden on the cooperative, which does not have taxing authority to pay for projects.

“There’s no easy way to finance projects like this on our own,” Executive Director Cliff Carmody said recently.

The school district and SWWC had moved ahead with the plan, with the board voting to seek bids in June.

However, the bonding money never came. The 2022 Legislature adjourned without approving a bonding bill which would have paid for all sorts of public works projects around the state.

Another problem arose when the bond counsel for the project said the cooperative would need the approval of each of its 50-plus member school districts to move ahead with the financing. That would have caused major delays.

The bids were high, because of inflation, but “weren’t significantly over what we expected,” Holm told the School Board.

“This is a need that won’t go away,” Holm said. He added that he hoped the co-op would be able to find funding to move ahead with its part of the project, too.

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The delay is particularly disappointing because “additional time means additional cost,” Carmody said.

The cooperative has worked for some time to develop Educational Learning Centers in central locations across its service area in west central and southwestern Minnesota.

The goal is to have students riding no more than 30 miles to get to the schools they need, Carmody said. Regional centers are needed, because students who need the facilities are scattered in different districts.

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Facilities have been developed in Montevideo and Cosmos in recent years. A small center in Willmar is not large enough to meet demands, he said, and it’s in rented space which was not designed to be an educational facility.

The need for more and better space in Willmar is still there, Carmody said.

“We will continue to work with them, because we haven’t fixed the problem,” he said. “We’re not done; these are the highest-need kids, and they need tremendous support.”

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: lvanderwerf@wctrib.com or phone 320-214-4340
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