District 88 Facility Task Force debates two options

NEW ULM – As they pondered the future District 88 schools Tuesday, facility task force members appeared split 60-40 between a plan that would expand school facilities by building an addition on the school main campus on South Payne Street and another, more comprehensive option that would build an entire new high school.

The first scenario, with a tentative price tag of $30.9 million, calls for connecting Jefferson Elementary and the High School with a substantial new addition. The addition would include gym and performance space, offices, a cafeteria, kitchens and other spaces. Engineered as multi-purpose space, it would be geared toward meeting not just school, but also community-at-large, needs.

This plan would also streamline grade distribution among buildings, making the High School a school for grades 8-12; Jefferson a school for grades 4-7; and Washington Elementary School, on the north end of town, a school for grades preK-3. To enable the grade re-configuration, the plan would involve expanding Washington School and remodeling all three schools.

The second option, with a price tag of $45.7 million, would involve building a new high school on an unspecified site. The option budgets for site acquisition. The plan would transform the existing High School into a middle school for grades 4-8, and keep grades lower elementary grades at Jefferson School. Washington School could be a site for pre-K, community ed and other programs.

Task force members appeared torn between considerations about what the community would realistically “buy into” (or support with its approval of a bond issue) and the desire to more permanently solve the current and future needs of students. Some task force members pointed out that it may be impossible to “sell” a new school to voters while the district owns several school buildings. Others noted it may actually be less prudent to pour resources into aging buildings – which are 50 years old now and may be 75 years old by the time a bond issue is paid off.

Further complicating the discussion were considerations about unmet physical education/athletic needs. An upgrade of the main campus (as outlined in the first option) would likely entail upgrades to athletic/physical education spaces. A list of such upgrades, developed in consultation with staff, coaches, etc., could add up to about $2.175 million. It would include possibilities such as: artificial turf to minimize wear and tear on a much-used field; adding bleachers with a press box, three more tennis courts, outdoor lighting and score board; areas for long, high and triple jump and pole vault, softball fields, etc. These upgrades would increase the availability of athletic spaces in the community, making it possible, among other things, to host more tournaments and draw visitors to town.

Proponents of the second, more costly option pointed out that the new high school option comes with an athletic/performance complex factored into the price. It would save the cost of the athletic upgrades, as well as elementary school remodeling costs of roughly $1.5 million. These savings could make the $45.7 million option more acceptable and attractive.

The task force was also made aware of maintenance projects – some $549,000 in high priority projects and some $1.6 million in lower priority items – that may factor into the equation.

Tracie Vranich, of the newly revived District 88 Foundation, informed the meeting that a couple of New Ulm donors have pledged a $1 million toward the cost of a fine arts complex if the school district decides to build one. She noted the task force needs to be aware of this consideration.

Because any construction projects would be primarily funded with a potential voter-approved bond, the task force also heard some estimated tax impact numbers (see table on page 1).

In a typical example, a 25-year, $30 million bond would raise the taxes on a $150,000 home by $56 a year, according to the estimates. In comparison, a $45 million bond would have a tax impact of $111 a year on the same home.

Officials will refine information on the two scenarios by March 11, when the task force will meet again to further narrow down options. The task force will present recommendations about a course of action to the School Board on March 27.

The task force was convened late last year, to help conduct a strategic evaluation of school facilities, determine unmet needs in the district, and help decide how to best meet them.

During the process, it has been re-iterated that the district is short on regular classroom space (now using portable classrooms at the high school), auditorium and gym space, special education space, offices and storage space.

The former high/junior high/middle school on State Street was closed to classes a few years ago after being deemed too costly to bring up to modern standards. This building houses an auditorium/gym still much in use by school and community groups. The district is in the process of negotiating its sale to a private party.

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