Brainerd School Board Facilities Committee members Thursday looked at short- and long-term options for the Whittier School building in north Brainerd.
Options for the closed elementary school ranged from selling or leasing the building, relocating community education programs or the alternative education center there or reopening it as an elementary school and building an addition to accommodate more students.
School board members took no action on the issue but did accept the report by Brainerd Community Education Director Todd Lyscio.
Lyscio gave a brief history of the building, which was constructed in 1938 as part of the Works Progress Administration. The building is located on 2.66 acres. At 27,160 square feet, the building is the smallest in the district. The annual cost to maintain Whittier in its current state is about $57,000-$67,000.
Lyscio said administrators have had many informal discussions about potential uses for the building.
One option is to relocate Brainerd Community Education programs there, along with its Fun 'N' Friends programs. But community education would need to get a conditional use permit from the city of Brainerd, make the building handicapped accessible and would likely have to create off-street parking, based on city statute. Lyscio said it doesn't seem to be a viable option.
Earl Wolleat, director of buildings and grounds, said it would cost about $200,000 to $300,000 to make the building handicapped accessible, a requirement if it would no longer be used as a school.
Another option was to relocate the high school alternative education program there, but there were many of the same concerns for the alternative program use as those by community education. This also wasn't considered a viable option. At its current location at the Brainerd School District Learning Center, the program offers individualized classes for students, which has been successful. The district is leasing the space. If the program was moved to Whittier it could result in a model similar to the current high school, putting students into the building for full days but it also might result in lower daily attendance.
"They've put together a program that works," board member Lew Hudson said of the alternative program. "It works extraordinarily well. I wouldn't want to jeopardize that in any way. If it's not broke, don't fix it."
A third option is for potential community use of the building. Lyscio said the district has received one inquiry from the Remnant Ministry Center, a downtown Brainerd church, about the possibility of leasing space at Whittier. Lyscio said one question is whether the city of Brainerd may have an interest in Whittier for its operations, such as Park and Recreation. Superintendent Steve Razidlo said in discussions he's had with city staff, they are likely not interested at this time. If the district does lease the space, the building would need to become handicapped accessible.
Lyscio said if the district can't find a suitable use for Whittier, either short- or long-term, then perhaps the district could sell the building, demolish the building and sell the land or create a project similar to Franklin Arts Center.
Lyscio said before more work is done to find an option for Whittier, the district as a whole must take into consideration its long-term needs and future growth. With only one classroom per grade, reopening Whittier would only result in one to two fewer students in each of the other sections at the elementary level. If the building was reopened as a school, an addition would be needed to be able to add two sections to make the move worth it, said Lyscio. At some point the district may need to grapple with either building a new elementary school or there are three other places where space is available the district could consider: Whittier, Forestview Middle School or Washington Educational Services Building.
Lyscio said Forestview has 12 classrooms available for a single section if the district wanted to consider a small elementary program there, much like Whittier. But adding classrooms at Forestview would take away any options for reducing class sizes there for fifth- through eighth- grades.
He said administrators have discussed using Washington as a potential site for a two-section elementary, but this would require moving community education to other spaces, possibly Whittier. Wolleat said the Washington building has plumbing, air quality and other problems that wouldn't allow it to support a student population of 1,200 as it has in the past but could support about 200 to 300 people.
"It's important we first and foremost exhaust any potential uses we would have," said Lyscio. "I'd be very reluctant to say let's just sell it right now."
In other committee action, committee members recommended board approval of a letter of endorsement for the Cuyuna Lakes State Trail proposal.
JODIE TWEED may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 855-5858.
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