Reasons for building activity vary
By Kremena Spengler
NEW ULM - As a local task force ponders options for school upgrades to better meet student and program needs in New Ulm, District 88 appears, coincidentally, to be part of a broader area trend.
Several nearby districts have either approved, or announced they will seek voter approval of, projects to renovate or expand existing schools, or even build new ones.
Like New Ulm, area communities are developing or acting upon plans that involve multi-purpose spaces serving entire communities, not just schools.
Also like New Ulm, plans involve changing grade level configurations to more effectively use space.
A task force of community volunteers is examining options ranging in price from $24 million to $110 million, with the idea of presenting a plan for voter approval this November (most recently, stories on specific aspects of this matter ran in the Jan. 15 and 22 editions of The Journal).
The task force is looking most closely at a multi-purpose addition to be built on the high-school campus. The addition would include performing arts and gym space, and the overall concept involves redistribution of grade levels among buildings.
Other choices range from minor or no changes to building a new school.
The task force meets again in mid-February to continue deliberating options and to examine financing and tax impacts.
Concurrently in New Ulm, St. Paul's Lutheran Elementary School is a looking at renovating and adding to the school, to accommodate enrollment growth, especially in the early grades.
A building committee is working with an architectural firm to draw up scenarios, and a finance committee is examining financing options, for an upcoming presentation to the congregation.
District 88 and St. Paul's are aware of, and looking at potential collaboration on some elements of, their respective plans.
Mankato Area Public Schools last November approved construction projects worth about $69.5 million, according to the Mankato Free Press.
The majority of the funds ($50.1 million) will go to a new middle school building on the east side of town, according to the Free Press. The balance of the bond will finance expansion and renovation of other schools, adding to common areas and making changes to re-distribute grade levels among buildings.
The tax hike for an average, $150,000 Mankato home will be about $94 per year, according to the Free Press. The tax for a $1 million commercial property will rise $1,649 per year.
The projects will begin this summer.
The construction results from the district's increasing enrollment, report school officials as quoted by the Free Press. Mankato enrollment grew 10 percent in 10 years, and is expected to grow an additional 10 percent in five years (to 8,351 students by 2017-18). Last year's kindergarten class was the largest in about 25 years. With a steep growth at the elementary level, the need is present for additional space at the middle-school level, the officials said.
This week, school officials in St. Peter said they will survey their community on potential support for a $55 million bond for projects, the major part of which would be a new high school (also according to the Free Press).
The district is hoping to put the question to voters in March of 2015, said the Free Press.
The proposal results from continued growth in the community. It has caused overcrowding at the elementary level and will filter up through the grades. The district projects growth of 1 to 2 percent a year over the next 10 years, adding about 300 students to the current 1,900 students.
The 185,000-square-foot new high school would be on the west side of St. Peter, on 84 acres of land the district already owns. The building would have a 700-student capacity, with a 1,000-student capacity in the cafeteria and other common areas to allow for growth.
Plans also call for a 700-seat performing arts space and a three-station gymnasium, tennis courts, practice fields, baseball/softball fields and a soccer/football field.
The new building and the reconfiguration of other buildings would eliminate the need to lease or rent space.
A rough early estimate shows that taxes on an average $150,000 home would increase $240 per year, or $20 per month, said the reports.
Cleveland, a smaller community near Mankato, is also appearing to benefit from the Greater Mankato area economic and population boom.
School officials there have resurrected plans for an addition that would include a performing arts theater and music practice space. The bond project would go to voters in 2015.
In the past five school years, Cleveland's K-12 student population grew from 397 to 451, a 14 percent increase, said officials quoted in separate coverage in the Free Press.
In 2009 the district was ready to begin public meetings about an addition that would have cost $15 million to $19 million, say the reports. Because the economy weakened, the district shelved these plans. The growth trend and the rebounding of the economy has led to the resumption of planning. A parcel of land that recently went up for sale could make construction less costly, add officials.
Officials told the Free Press that the growth trend is a reason to act now. With many students open-enrolling and keeping their options open, it is important for the district to give families reasons to choose Cleveland.
New Ulm enrollment
New Ulm plans are in response to current unmet needs: the lack of auditorium and gym space, the growth over time in special education programs, etc.
As to the most current population trend, New Ulm is waiting on updated state information by county, said Superintendent Jeff Bertrang. District monitoring shows increases in the number of children ages 0-4. That information gets refined each year as the district holds pre-school screenings and classes. "At this point, we have information that shows slight growth, as is seen in our lower elementary grades," says Bertrang.