New school talk focuses on locationPublished 10:20am Tuesday, April 26, 2011
One thing is for sure: There won’t be a new school built on Ellis Middle School property.
Though much of the discussion at the Austin Public School board special session was the same, board members learned that teachers were more inclined to build a new school at a separate site from Ellis Middle School and that district officials are looking into several sites around Austin, including the old Kmart lot.
“This is a big decision for a school board,” said Aaron Keenan, board chairperson. “(We) want to make sure that we spend the taxpayer’s dollar wisely.”
According to Mark Stotts, the district’s finance and operations director, school officials are looking at about five sites so far, some at the outskirts of town, others closer to the downtown area.
District officials wouldn’t publicly reveal which sites they were looking at, as they didn’t want owners of the prospective land to raise prices based on public comments. Stotts told board members he had spoken with the broker of the Kmart lot, who would get a cost estimate for the land from the owners within a couple weeks.
Two residents left the meeting early after attempting to ask Stotts questions. Keenan told residents board members weren’t taking public comments at the time, as board rules stipulate special sessions are for board members to learn about topics and issues concerning the district.
The residents were asked to come to the monthly board meeting on the second Monday of the month, where public comments can be made.
The Daily Herald previously reported board members were going to hear community delegations at Monday’s special session meeting based on board member comments at the board’s April meeting. Board members usually do not take public comments during special session meetings, and the delegations were teachers who spoke about whether a new school should be built on Ellis property or a separate site.
“Too many kids”
The board unanimously decided to have district officials form a proposal which would involve a new school on a site separate from Ellis after hearing the results of a teacher’s poll and listening to several teachers’ opinions.
According to a teacher’s poll, most Austin teachers would prefer a new school be built on a separate site from the Ellis property. Of about 340 teachers, 162 responded. Of those teachers, about 70 percent said they’d prefer a school on a separate site.
“It’s just too many kids,” said Cheryl Dunlap, a sixth grade teacher at Ellis. Dunlap, along with other fifth and sixth grade teachers, told school board members that it would be a nightmare to have about 1,700 students on the 19-acre plot for logistical reasons. There would be too many students to properly schedule gym and cafeteria time, as well as share computer lab space. It would also be difficult for staff to watch over and in some cases move that many students if there were an emergency, such as severe weather or a gas leak.
“How would you even evacuate that many kids if you had to?” Dunlap asked board members.
Board members agreed, saying it would be beneficial to have a new school since the newest school in the district is more than 50 years old and at some point there would be buildings that would have to be phased out.
By all signs, it appears district officials are seriously considering either building a new school or retrofitting an existing building into a new school. According to David Krenz, the district’s superintendent, school administrators would have to look at leasing space from other places in town in order to deal with an increasing student enrollment that is projected to add almost 500 more students to the district’s total student population by 2016. Leasing space would ultimately cost taxpayers more in the long run that simply creating another building for students.
“We don’t have enough classroom space for our elementary students,” Krenz said during the meeting.
What about Woodson?
There aren’t any concrete plans for a renovation to Woodson Kindergarten Center, which is part of the proposal a community task force gave to board members earlier this month. The initial proposal called for additions to be made, which would increase Woodson’s classroom space to 20 total classrooms. However, Woodson Principal Jean McDermott said Woodson could make due with about 18 to 19 classrooms and a multipurpose room where equipment that currently takes up half of Woodson’s gymnasium could be stored, giving Woodson students more room.
Board members indicated they would like to meet with Woodson staff and hear their ideas for renovations to be made before making a decision on what should be done with the school, which is already at capacity at about 340 students. Woodson is expected to have about 60 more students next fall.
The next step
Board members asked district officials to come up with a time table for the board to make decisions on the proposal. The board must come to a decision by September, so there will be adequate time to call for a bond referendum vote in November under state law. District officials must also submit the proposal to the Minnesota Department of Education for review, so MDE can either favorably or unfavorably recommend a bond referendum be placed on area ballots.
While not much has been decided yet, school officials say they want to take every opportunity to think the proposal through, find the most economic answer that will work the best in the long run and give residents the opportunity to comment on the district’s actions.