Archive for Wednesday, March 14, 2001

District discusses growth options

March 14, 2001

The Baldwin school board met on Monday to consider the same capital improvement issues that have been before the school board for nearly a year. Beginning last May, the board began looking at various architectural firms to help make decisions on building additions at Vinland, Baldwin Junior High School, Baldwin High School and the district office.

But before the first architectural consultants got very far, it was obvious that a new elementary school would be a pressing concern, given the number of new homes going up in the area and the overcrowding already present.

In addition, all the architectural firms the board talked to encouraged the creation of a master plan of long-term needs, rather than considering only short-term needs, which would only provide a temporary Band-aid and not a cure to the district's ills.

By June, the Frangkiser Hutchens firm had been chosen to develop a master plan for the district. So the board switched from its self-planned projects over five years to a 10-15 year outlook.

The first master plan was presented last fall, but even before the plan was created, the critical issue facing the district was identified: almost all the schools in the district were sitting on inadequate sites in other words, no space to grow.

After the first master plan was presented last fall, the board was disappointed. It wasn't the long-term plan they expected. In fact, it didn't tell the board anything it didn't already know. So the architects headed back to the drawing board. And a week ago, a second master plan was revealed at a special study session open to the public.

This week's school board meeting basically was a rehash of the issues discussed last week as the board sought some direction it ought to be heading in.

Board president Ed Schulte tried to find some balance of long-term and short-term needs that the board could focus on. As he led the discussion, he hoped to identify areas where the board could take some action.

Instead of the pre-K to grade 2 facility construction as outlined in the architect's suggested master plan, Schulte wanted the board to consider a 3-4-5 grade building.

"It's better for younger kids to have school in a central location," he said, meaning the existing school on Chapel Street. If the 3-4-5 building is on a new adequately sized site, it would make it easier for the district to add 6-7-8 to it.

Board member Lonnie Broers wondered if it would make sense to create two sets of elementary administrative teams at Baldwin Elementary in advance of creating a new school. That way everyone would get used to the split in advance.

Supt. James White indicated that some discussion had taken place on that concept, but that administrators felt it wouldn't be a good idea.

Broers said the board was obligated to look at all options and wondered if changing attendance boundaries would alleviate the class size issue.

Board member Roger Arnold suggested asking for volunteers who'd be willing to move their children to other sites.

Schulte said he wasn't comfortable with the architectural firm's numbers for student populations for each site. Since the master plan uses a 3 percent enrollment increase every year, it was suggested that the figures might be right as recent increases in enrollment in the district have been around 3 percent.

Broers asked if space could be made in Baldwin Elementary for more classrooms by asking the lab school to leave. That would create space to accommodate current overcrowding.

Supt. White said that it's not so much a space issue as a teacher issue. By adding one teacher at each grade level the district could equalize the class size problem.

White is currently working on the budget to include a solution to the reading problem, possibly by hiring a reading specialist or two or by further reducing class sizes in the lower grades. He mentioned a bill in the legislature that calls for a Reading Recovery program to be used by every school.

"I don't think it will fly," White said, indicating he'd talked with State Rep. Ralph Tanner. Tanner said he didn't think it had a chance and that each school would be able to pick its own reading program.

In a meeting with Tanner, White and Schulte heard about K-12 funding in the legislature. Gov. Graves was to make an announcement on March 13 regarding his desire to see increased funding for schools. But Tanner didn't seem too encouraged about the possibility, that perhaps Graves was hoping someone in the legislature would actually come forward with a plan of their own.

Schulte said there's a growing groundswell around the state for a tax increase for education. And he hoped that USD 348 district patrons would let the legislature know where they stand on the issue. Revenues could come from sales tax, cigarette and liquor tax, the lottery, and even some highway funds.

Discussion turned to the junior high, where decisions are made based on the limitations of the facility, not on educational needs. The board discussed the feasibility of moving the sixth grade, which now has up to 26 students in a room, back to the elementary schools. But White said the 6-7-8 middle school concept is simply too strong, and besides there simply isn't room in the other schools for the sixth graders to return.

"We can lease two mobile units to meet the needs of the junior high next year," White said. "Teachers leave their rooms now at planning time to accommodate other classes. Two-thirds of the classrooms are shared."

Since the current auditorium in the junior high is too small, seating only 550, it was suggested that that space might be converted to classrooms. It was noted that the lighting and sound system are not in safe condition.

The architect's suggestion of a new auditorium to seat 650 is considered by the board and members of the administration to be too small, especially if it is to serve both the high school and the junior high.

Board member Curtis Trarbach wanted to make sure that the district fulfill all commitments it has made in the past. He didn't see some of these promises in the master plan.

"We made a commitment to staff to acclimatize all schools," he said. Now it's time for the junior high to get air conditioning. "We need to follow through on promises we've already made."

White said that estimates had been obtained last year for upgrading the junior high in that area, and that it could be completed out of the local option budget funds next year.

White and Trarbach suggested an alternate solution for the architect's $240,000 price tag for a new wrestling building. Companies that build metal buildings offer complete design, engineering, and construction for around $100,000.

"We're just looking at space," White said. "The wrestling building doesn't have to be over designed, just insulated and heated."

Trarbach did say that the city was concerned with the safety issues at the drop off area. The city is adamant that the school drop-off align with Wesley Street, and there are specific issues about set back and shrubs to ensure adequate vision both ways.

How to finance these capital improvements doesn't appear to be the big issue at this point in the master plan process. There's room in the local option budget to raise funds, and the current bond structure can be refinanced up to $7.3 million with an additional one-mill levy.

In other business, the board approved the school district application for a 21st Century Learning Center grant. This program, if funded, will provide after-school activities.

A report from buildings and grounds identified a problem with the chair lift at the Baldwin Elementary School. The lift is old, and finding parts is difficult. It may prove more economical to replace the chair rather than try to fix it.

A delegation from the Vinland Elementary Site Counsel reported on projects the school is working on for Founders' Day, May 15. The history of Vinland is the theme of a 8x16-foot mural the school has commissioned to an artist. Baker University is helping organize taped interviews of students and Vinland residents. Events for Founders' Day will include skits, biographies, long-ago games, daily chores of rural life, a chuck-wagon style lunch, and a fifth-grade debate on the subject "Was John Brown Crazy?"

The delegation also reported that the Vinland Web site is nearly ready to go. The Partners in Education program now has 62 individual and business partners. Each classroom partners with a business in this curriculum-based exchange.

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