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District approves 'last resort' in meeting needs

New Richmond School District officials thought more about their current and pending space crunch and decided to do something about it.

As a short-term fix to a severe lack of classroom space in the elementary grade levels, the School Board voted 5-2 to lease six portable classrooms for two years.

The portables would be attached to East Elementary at a cost of about $286,000 over two years.

Superintendent Craig Hitchens set the stage for the portable classroom discussion by outlining enrollment numbers in the district.

Without any additional new students in the district, enrollment in New Richmond schools will climb by more than 6 percent next year, Hitchens said.

The biggest number hike is set to occur in the elementary schools, where a kindergarten class of as many as 220 kids is set to enter school.

The school staff and administration have already been making do with the space available in West and East elemantaries, he noted.

With no additional space, Hitchens said three additional classrooms would have to be found in the two buildings next year. Even with that, class sizes would rise dramatically in third grade, according to projections.

Preliminary plans called for shutting down the school's computer rooms and placing technology "on a cart" to free up space. The cost of that option was $100,000.

In the administration recommendation Monday, Hitchens said the district would be better served by spending the money on portable classrooms.

Hitchens said the district's limited space already has an impact on the curriculum offered to students. With each new year of growing space concerns, restrictions on instructional options decrease, he added.

"All of these things have a significant impact on the curriculum," he said.

The impact would grow even greater in the 2006-07 school year, when even more students are expected to enroll in the district, Hitchens said.

If projections hold, Hitchens said elementary musicals, piano keyboarding, orchestra, music lessons, some physical education and some art instruction would be eliminated from the curriculum.

"This is not any kind of scare tactic," he said. "We lose opportunities for kids."

Hitchens said the price for six portables "is a very unattractive number," but the proposal would buy the district some time while a new building is considered.

"None of us want to see portables up," he said. "But they would serve us well."

Contrary to earlier reports, the district would be able to install portable classrooms by August, in time for next school year. Several pre-made units are available, but the classrooms are sold on a first-come, first served basis.

Hitchens said a decision about portables would need to be made soon, however.

In discussing the issue, board member Deanna Cook-Shannon said enrollment numbers would likely be higher than current registrations, thus making the space needs greater.

She said instruction is already suffering due to a lack of space, so she supported the portable lease.

"I understand that it's expensive, but I feel like we need to do service to our children," she said.

Board member Greg Demulling agreed. He said to decide against portables was a vote to "limit our instruction."

"We need to do something today," he said. "We have to take care of the educational needs of our children."

Board member Chris Skoglund said she would vote against the use of portables if there was some way for the district to avoid the loss of instruction.

"Portables would have been my last resort," she said. "But given what we've been told, I don't think we have a choice but to go with portables."

Board member Greg Gartner agreed as well. "I detest the thought of portable classrooms. That really bothers me," he said. "But we're in such a bind, it's perhaps the only solution."

Two members disagreed, favoring instead a more complete solution to the problem.

Board member Judy Remington said the district would be better served by spending the money on permanent facilities.

"I think it's short sighted of us," she said.

She favors a quick referendum to add 10 new classrooms on East Elementary, with the hope of moving into the addition in a year.

Had the board pursued the addition in the first place, Remington said, the district would not be in such a bind.

Board member Bill Brennan agreed. Brennan said he'd vote against portables and would support a push for 10 extra permanent classrooms.

Following the 5-2 vote, the board had a discussion about the next step in the referendum process. The failure of the April 5 referendum for $54 million has allowed the district to look at enrollment projections closer.

Hitchens said the administrative team was ready to come back to the School Board with a recommended building plan. The proposal would mirror the recommendation from last November, calling for a new high school and a new elementary school.

The most recent referendum included a 10-classroom addition to East, but Hitchens said that option would only buy the district two years.

He suggested that the addition would be full the year it was opened for use, forcing the board to approach the voters for a new building.

Hitchens doubted such a quick referendum would pass.

"We would be looked at as the biggest charlatans to come down the road," he said.

Adding a new elementary school to the referendum mix would make a positive vote more difficult, Hitchens admitted, but that's the only way to meet the district's immediate needs.

"Our needs at the elementary are already so much more than what a 10-classroom addition will bring," he said.

Tim O'Brien, a member of the "Vote Yes" committee, suggested the district simplify its referendum request to a new high school and elementary school. He said talk of renovation clouded the most recent proposal.

"I think a lot of people got sidetracked," he said. "We need to concentrate on those two core needs."

Hitchens said the high school will reach capacity next year, the middle school continues to be a poor facility and the elementary schools lack adequate space.

The district needs to start addressing those issues soon or face falling even further behind, he said.

The board directed the administration to come back with a referendum recommendation at its regular May meeting.

Hitchens said the board also needs to decide if it wants to hire an architect before the fall referendum so preliminary drawings can be developed.

He also noted that land needs for a new building need to be identified before the vote.

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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