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School Board is weighing up possible school sites; decision will come later

WILLMAR -- The Willmar School Board is moving closer to choosing a site for a proposed new elementary school. Board members discussed two potential sites at their Monday meeting -- one in northwest Willmar along County Road 5 west of the College ...

WILLMAR -- The Willmar School Board is moving closer to choosing a site for a proposed new elementary school.

Board members discussed two potential sites at their Monday meeting -- one in northwest Willmar along County Road 5 west of the College View neighborhood and one in southeast Willmar near Lincoln Elementary School.

Board members did not choose between the sites but heard reports about the potential costs, advantages and disadvantages of each site. The discussion will continue at the next meeting on Jan. 28, when the board will hear a presentation from the architect who has been studying the district's facilities.

The presentation from architect David Leapaldt will be the next step in a process that started more than two years ago when the School Board began talking about how to handle maintenance needs in its aging buildings.

Last summer, a citizen task force unanimously recommended that the board explore the possibility of building a new elementary school to replace some of the district's older buildings.

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Superintendent Kathy Leedom said talking about the sites now would give the public a chance to weigh in about the two sites before the board hears the report from Leapaldt. The report is likely to include some proposals for "repurposing" some of the district's buildings to better fit some programs, she said.

State requirements indicate that the district would need a total of 22 acres to build a new elementary school. However, state officials are talking about changing those requirements.

Leedom said she has been asked to testify about challenges school districts face when looking for sites large enough for new schools. Some districts own land but not enough to meet those state requirements.

A site selection committee has met several times and has talked with representatives of the property owners, Leedom said. The committee has talked with City Engineer Mel Odens about utilities and access to the sites.

With one site north of the railroad tracks that run through town and one site south of the tracks, Leedom provided some information about the population of children in the district -- 768 children from pre-school through grade 2 live north of the tracks, and 1,583 children in that age range live south of the tracks.

Leedom and Odens laid out the facts about each area.

The property southeast of Lincoln Elementary, owned by the Gesch family of Willmar, is available in parcels of 15 acres. The original asking price is $81,460 per acre. A 15-acre parcel could be combined with the seven-acre Lincoln School site to meet the 22-acre requirement.

The County Road 5 property includes a 40-acre parcel with an asking price of $10,000 per acre and a 45-acre parcel with an asking price of $12,500 per acre. The 45-acre parcel is the one that best suits the school district's needs, Leedom said.

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There has been no price negotiation on either site at this point, Leedom said, although some of the owners are anxious to talk more.

The Gesch property has more access points from the city streets nearby and has water, sanitary sewer and storm water retention available, Odens said.

Utilities and access to the property would need to be developed on the County Road 5 property, he said, and utility extensions could be quite costly.

The County Road 5 property would have to be annexed to the city. Both sites would require rezoning.

The board will need to look at a number of issues before choosing a site, Leedom said. She suggested that transportation issues and future needs of the district would be important considerations.

Some board members said they weren't sure the voters would approve of the cost of the land, and they talked about other possibilities, including purchasing vacant lots near Lincoln Elementary.

Board member Sandi Unger said she didn't like the idea of having school buildings "at four corners" of the community. Having schools scattered so far apart will make busing more difficult, she said.

Jerry Gesch, one of the owners of the land in southeast Willmar, was at the meeting. He told the board that people in the community often tell him that they with the Senior High had been built on that land in the 1990s.

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Asked by board member Brad Schmidt if his family would be open to the idea of an elementary school there, Gesch said, "We feel this is a good spot for it."

Gesch said he felt building a new school would be a wise move because it would be so much more efficient.

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