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Local realtors are counting on it. Wal-Mart is pretty sure it's going to happen. With significant population growth in and around New Richmond almost inevitable, the school district is gearing up to address higher enrollment.

At its work session last Wednesday, the district administrative team unveiled its recommendation for future building needs.

The preliminary enrollment projections indicate a need for one new elementary school accommodating three age levels, and a new high school with classroom space for 1,200 students and common areas designed for 1,600.

If the board follows the recommendation, both new buildings would be constructed away from the district "campus" because of growing bus and traffic congestion in the area.

The recommendation also states a need to remodel West Elementary to expand physical education, library and kitchen space to serve more students.

The proposal also calls for the current high school to be converted into a middle school.

If the school board decides to move ahead with a referendum, the total price tag for the complete project would be about $62 million.

If voters approve the referendum, the likely impact on taxes would be about a $586 increase for a $200,000 home. A home assessed at $150,000 would pay about $440 extra.

The referendum is tentatively slated for November 2005. If land for possible new schools is secured early enough, the board could choose to move the referendum forward to April.

"We don't have anything we're trying to sell," Superintendent Craig Hitchens told the board. "What we do have is what we feel is the best for our school district. This is not a wish list ... it's a solid recommendation to meet the needs."

Hitchens admits there is no way for the district to know how much enrollment will grow over the next few years.

All indications are that a huge population spike could come soon, he said. But even with modest growth, current facilities will stretch past capacity.

Brian Johnston, director of fiscal and building operations, presented a number of indicators used to predict growth is on New Richmond's doorstep.

He noted that improved highway access to New Richmond and a possible new bridge crossing at the St. Croix River could have an impact on growth rates.

"They're going to start believing they can get over here," Johnston said.

He noted there are about 2,200 building lots currently available within the New Richmond city limits, "and that's just the city."

Using extensive market research, Wal-Mart decided to expand its New Richmond store plans in anticipation of potential growth, Johnston noted.

Growth rates in surrounding school districts may also indicate the wave is heading this way, he added.

Somerset experienced a 10.4 percent hike in school enrollment this year, while St. Croix Central saw a 5.5 percent jump. New Richmond reported a 3.5 percent rise.

Even with steady 3 percent growth, New Richmond will exceed capacity in the high school during the 2006-07 school year. The district has already reached capacity at West Elementary. Capacity at East Elementary would be reached in 2007-08.

The elementary schools are already short six classrooms for much of their programs. Hitchens said such programs as gifted and talented and Title I already operate in hallways, storage closets and carts.

"Good instruction is being delivered despite the lack of space," Heyerdahl said in an interview last week.

If classroom space is eventually freed up through new buildings, Hitchens said those open rooms would be immediately filled with existing programs.

If growth rates climb any higher, district administrators say the buildings will be filled even quicker and more problems will emerge.

Hitchens said the administrative team is concerned about individual buildings becoming too big.

The option of simply adding 10 classrooms to East Elementary was discussed, Hitchens said, but enrollment would likely skyrocket in the school. Current research indicates that schools of no more than 600 students help provide a better learning atmosphere, he noted.

There was also consideration given to building a 1,000-capacity high school, but by the time the building was ready in 2007 or 2008, enrollment will likely be at that level already.

"Now you're moving into a building that is full," said Deb Heyerdahl, director of instruction and staff development.

Hitchens admits that district taxpayers may suffer a bout of sticker shock at the projected cost, but the $62 million figure by no means includes any "frivolous" add ons.

"We will spend efficiently what we're asking for," Hitchens said. "The square footage is relatively small. We are trying to keep the costs down."

Hitchens said taxpayers have been fortunate because the district debt has been extremely low for years.

The debt is currently under $7 million, yet the district has a debt limit of $106 million as established by the state. Hitchens suggested that the realistic debt limit would be about $84 million.

"This is a lot of debt we're asking the community to absorb," Hitchens said. "But it's well within the limits set."

In part because of the low level of debt, New Richmond taxpayers pay the lowest mil rate of any districts in the area. The local school rate is 8.47 compared with the next lowest of 8.59 in Osceola. Somerset's mil rate is 10.87 and St. Croix Central's 9.42.

The rate is low, Hitchens said, because New Richmond has made do with present facilities for a long time.

"We have not replaced buildings or built buildings like a lot of our neighbors over the years," he said. "We haven't kept pace. Now we have dire needs at both the elementary and high school levels."

Heyerdahl warned the public that the possible referendum will not solve all of New Richmond's space needs forever.

"If this growth materializes, there will have to be additions and buildings," she said.

Hitchens agreed. "Folks need to start getting used to a referendum every four years or so," he commented.

At the same time, Heyerdahl added, New Richmond administrators want to make sure the district "builds smart," providing flexibility for future facility use.

The district will continue to use portable classroom on a short-term basis to meet immediate space needs, Heyerdahl suggested, and then plan for other solutions.

The district administration remains optimistic that voters will approve the referendum. Heyerdahl is convinced that the community is "pro-education."

"But they want to know that whatever is recommended is based on solid reasoning," she said. "They want to be given the facts."

Hitchens said the success of the referendum will hinge on the district honestly answering all of the residents' questions. He said he welcomes all questions from all taxpayers, parents or students.

Jeff Holmquist
Jeff Holmquist has been managing editor of the New Richmond News since 2004. He holds a bachelor's degree in journalism and business administration from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. He has previously worked as editor in Wadena, Minn.; Detroit Lakes, Minn.; Hutchinson, Minn.; and Bloomington, Minn. He also was previously owner of the Osceola Sun, Stillwater Courier and Scandia Messenger along with his wife. Together they previously founded and published The Old Times newspaper for antiques and collectibles collectors; and Up!, a Christian magazine of hope and encouragement.
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