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School Board shies away from portables

A growing flood of facts and a few guesses have New Richmond School Board members scratching their heads over what to do next.

After a lengthy discussion Monday night, the board took no official action on its next step in addressing the lack of classroom space at the district's elementary schools.

Members appeared to be leaning toward pushing for another referendum vote in the coming months, possibly as early as September.

What's unclear is what new buildings, additions or renovation projects will make up the referendum package.

Outgoing board member Andy Lieffort said the district needs to consider building a third elementary school soon, rather than proceeding with a temporary solution by adding 10 classrooms to East Elementary.

"We would do a disservice to the district by doing a quick fix," he said. "Going with the new elementary is the proper direction for this district."

He said enrollment projections indicate that the district could face a serious space crunch as early as next school year, and even with an addition, a new building would still need to be constructed within five years if numbers climb.

The problem with choosing a new building over an addition is timing. An addition could be completed in a year, while a new building would take two years.

Superintendent Craig Hitchens said another stumbling block could be the voters' reluctance to vote for a new high school and elementary school.

"If we already have voters who said no to $54 million, how could we go back and ask for $60 million?" he asked.

Space is running out at the high school as well, he said, and construction needs to begin soon on that new facility or the district will have a difficult time handling the expected influx of kids.

Board members appeared reluctant to purchase or lease portable classrooms on a temporary basis to relieve the stress.

The cost for the portables (as much as $280,000 for two years or $370,000 for three years) is too high a price for a temporary fix, Board President Judy Remington said.

Director of Fiscal and Building Operations Brian Johnston said it's already too late to order portable classrooms for the start of next school year. If the district wanted portables by September, they need to be ordered by February, he noted.

Board member Deanna Cook-Shannon said, however, if another referendum fails, the board has to be ready to bring in portables immediately.

"We can't mess around any more," she said.

School officials shared some of the figures they are dealing with in the district.

Director of Instruction Deb Heyerdahl said the district has 190 students enrolled for kindergarten next fall, and that number typically rises through the summer.

New Richmond is now projecting it will have 216 kindergarteners, and that number could grow even higher, she said.

The youngest grade will be replacing a fifth grade class of 175 students, putting greater pressure on space, she said.

East Elementary Principal Steve Wojan said the elementary schools have identified 53 potential classrooms for next year. If more space is needed, such programs as music and art could suffer if classrooms are taken away.

He noted that the elementary schools are currently operating at 77 students over capacity.

Heyerdahl said another option would be to significantly increase class sizes, but board members were opposed to the idea.

Wojan also offered to poll the parents of the incoming kindergarten class to see if any parents would sign up for half-day kindergarten.

If the district found a minimum of 40 families who wanted a half-day option, Wojan said one classroom would be freed up for another grade level.

But Superintendent Craig Hitchens said only two or three parents a year typically ask about half-day.

Members of the New Richmond "Vote Yes" committee were on hand Monday to encourage the district to move ahead soon with another referendum.

Spokesperson Tim O'Brien said district residents understand the space needs, but recent unrelated controversies helped to sink the April 5 vote.

He urged the district to "quickly identify" a possible site for a new high school and then plan a new referendum.

"The time to act is now," he said. "We know this community wants to provide our children with adequate educational facilities for the future. Let's start building that future now."

Several "Vote Yes" supporters said it's important that the School Board present a united front during the next referendum.

The appearance that some board members did not back the most recent $54 million vote doomed it to failure, they claimed.

One audience member asked Board member Bill Brennan what it would take for him to support new buildings in the district.

Brennan said he couldn't answer the question. "I'll have to get back to you on that," he said.

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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