Partnership could add gymnasium, wing for special needs students to Willmar Middle School
WILLMAR – The Willmar School Board and the Southwest/West Central Service Cooperative are considering a joint project to build an addition at the northeast corner of Willmar Middle School.
If it goes ahead, Willmar School Board members said at their meeting Monday, it would not involve asking taxpayers for additional funding. Voters approved a $52 million building program in 2015, but a middle school gym was not part of that project.
“We are not going to have a bond referendum; there will be no burden on taxpayers,” said Chairman Mike Reynolds.
The proposed addition would include a Level 4 special education wing for students who are not able to attend school in a regular classroom. It would also include a small wing for an alternative learning center for middle school-aged students and an auxiliary gymnasium for the Middle School.
It’s not certain that the project will move ahead, but board members said they want to continue to explore the idea and funding options. One possibility is to use the district’s undesignated fund balance for its share of a project. A lease contract was another idea offered.
Though there are many details to be worked out, some preliminary numbers were available Monday.
Preliminary estimates place the cost of the entire project at about $13 million, with Willmar paying about $4 million of it. The district’s current fund balance is nearly $13 million, and school officials have talked about finding ways to spend it down somewhat to benefit students.
The soonest a facility would open would be fall 2021.
The idea grew out of several seemingly unrelated situations:
The service co-op wants to find a place to build a Level 4 school in Willmar.
The Willmar Middle School wants space for its own alternative learning center geared to younger students.
The middle school is in need of more gym space.
Reynolds told board members Monday that he spoke with Superintendent Jeff Holm about the needs of the district and his desire to add gym space for the middle school. Their discussion led to the idea of a partnership with the service co-op.
Holm said he was on a task force exploring options for developing a Level 4 facility in Willmar. There’s a program on the MinnWest Technology Campus in Willmar, but the space is not ideal for that use, he added.
Service co-op officials had approached the district some time ago about purchasing the land south of Lakeland Elementary School to build a Level 4 facility, but that did not work out.
In the past year, the middle school alternative learning center has been in different locations, most recently in the lower level of Jefferson Learning Center, but that space, too, is not ideal for that use.
Reynolds said the middle school’s gym space is much smaller per student that at the other buildings, and space is needed for physical education and for community use.
Cliff Carmody, the co-op’s executive director, said the co-op is trying to better meet the needs of special needs children by developing new Level 4 facilities across its 18-county service area. Currently, some children ride buses far from their homes to receive the services they need.
The number of children needing Level 4 services has grown, and the available space hasn’t kept up, he said. At the end of the school year, the co-op had a waiting list of 40 students.
Willmar School Board member Michael O’Brien said he drives a bus for Level 4 children to a facility in Belview each school day, a total of 500 miles on the road for a child each week.
“I can’t tell you how much we need this program,” O’Brien said. “We’re talking about kids and the safety of these kids.”