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Willmar Public Schools, service cooperative talking again about possible Willmar Middle School addition

After a pandemic pause, Willmar and the Southwest West Central Service Cooperative are talking again about a potential Willmar Middle School addition to benefit both of them — more gym space and alternative learning classrooms for the school district and space for the cooperative to run program for high-needs special education students.

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A new Educational Learning Center, operated by the Southwest West Central Service Cooperative, shown in this September 2019 file photo, opened in 2019 to serve students in a 30- to 40-mile radius of Montevideo. A similar facility is proposed for Willmar. Tom Cherveny / West Central Tribune

WILLMAR — Work toward an expansion at Willmar Middle School has started again after a pause of more than a year because of the pandemic.

Willmar Public Schools and the Southwest West Central Service Cooperative , based in Marshall, have discussed for several years the possibility of a middle school addition that would provide space for the school and for a cooperative special education program.

The proposed addition would include a new gym and classrooms for an alternative learning program for middle school-aged students, plus an addition operated by the cooperative for high-needs special education students.

The Willmar School Board adopted a resolution this week in support of the cooperative seeking state bonding money to pay for its part of the proposed addition to Willmar Middle School.

The resolution is not a commitment to move ahead with the project, but an expression of support for the cooperative’s efforts, Superintendent Jeff Holm told the board.

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While the project was on hold, cooperative officials spoke with area legislators about the possibility of state bonding money to pay for its portion of the project.

The cooperative does not have taxing authority. The original financing plan was for the school district to pay for the project with its general fund balance, which has grown in recent years. The cooperative would make lease payments for its space as a way of reimbursing the district.

The School Board several years ago supported the project as long as it wouldn’t raise property taxes, Holm said.

Previous stories on this issue:

The middle school has limited gym space, about 9 square feet per student, Holm said, and that’s inadequate for a school with more than 900 students.
School officials have decided that middle school students should not attend the ALC at Garfield School with high school students. They currently study in a “marginally appropriate” space in the basement of Jefferson Learning Center, Holm said.

The cooperative offers education and administrative services to school districts and communities in 18 counties in southwestern Minnesota.

Part of the service is a variety of special education services for school districts in its service area, including educational learning centers for a Level 4 facility for high-needs special education students.

Students have sometimes spent an hour or more on buses to get to the nearest center. Willmar students have sometimes been bused to Cosmos or Belview.

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In recent years the cooperative has worked to develop centers more evenly scattered throughout the service area. A new center opened in Montevideo in 2019.

The cooperative currently operates a center in Willmar, in a building on the MinnWest Technology campus, which was not designed for education purposes, Holm said.

The middle school location would also allow some shared services, like physical education space, food service and custodians.

Board members said they were still supportive.

“If COVID wouldn’t have hit, we probably would have had shovels in the ground two years ago,” said Chairman Mike Reynolds.

“Every student that goes through the middle school will take advantage of the improved facilities, and it’s also good for the community,” said board member Tammy Barnes.

Holm agreed that “the pandemic paused our plans, and we were moving ahead nicely.”

However, plans will proceed more cautiously now, as the district assesses the effects of the pandemic on enrollment and its financial condition, Holm said.

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The Minnesota Legislature won’t take up a bonding bill until it meets next year, and a bonding bill is often not passed until the end of the session in May, or later.

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Related Topics: EDUCATIONMINNESOTAWILLMAR
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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