A few Brainerd School Board members said Tuesday they wish they could support reopening Whittier School next fall, adding portable classrooms to create a two-section elementary school there to resolve the district's projected elementary growth concerns.
But as school board members shared their feelings for the first time publicly about the five proposed elementary facility options, they each said they supported a "wait and see" approach, rather than making a financial commitment to remodel an existing building, moving an entire grade to another building or reopening Whittier.
The School Board Facilities Committee recommended Tuesday the board adopt a "wait and see" approach with projected elementary school growth. The committee also directed administrators to find ways to resolve potential enrollment growth issues next fall, by finding additional classroom space in existing buildings and moving students to various classrooms or buildings to attempt to reach the district's target of an average 25 students per classroom.
Each board member, including the three board members-elect, weighed in on the issue. Board member Kent Montgomery was absent from the meeting.
"I think we can continue to monitor enrollment," board chair Ruth Nelson said. "I'm quite concerned about our (expiring operating) levy, what the state will do and teacher (contract) negotiations."
Board member Molly Kurtzman said she supported waiting, or making a decision with a long-term impact, rather than temporary solutions as were most of the options. She emphasized the board has to continue with its planning efforts, to create a permanent plan on how to resolve growth issues in the future, even if it's a difficult decision to make.
"We can't just sit back and say, 'Well, we decided to wait so you're just all going to have to make it work,'" said Kurtzman. "If we do choose to wait, there will be classrooms that need something."
Board member Reed Campbell said he would have liked to see Whittier reopened if the district had the money. But after hearing about the budget uncertainties facing the district in the next four years, Campbell said the district should "sit and wait and see what happens."
Board member Bob Nystrom said his dream would be to reopen Whittier to reduce class sizes, but with these economic times, he said he didn't believe the district could do that. He also recommended a "wait and see" approach.
"To make an outlay of money right now and open a building and try to sustain that over the next few years, I think would be difficult to do," said Nystrom.
Board member Lew Hudson said he was drawn to Option 2, of reopening Whittier and utilizing portable classrooms to be purchased from the St. Cloud School District to create a two-section school.
"I'm still carrying a guilt load for having to have to close that school," Hudson said. "I don't like closing schools and maybe that's why my emotions took me that way."
Hudson said after further thought he believes taking a "wait and see" approach was the most appropriate option at this point.
Board member-elect Jim Hunt said if he felt an immediate need for classroom space, he would favor reopening Whittier into a two-section school. However, he felt the district has some time and it is not critical that a decision be made for next fall.
"I'm not in favor of just sitting back and waiting but I don't feel we should do any of the other options," said board member-elect Tom Haglin. "I think we have the luxury of time to not make a financial decision for an ongoing operating expense but we need to continue with the planning."
Board member-elect Chris Robinson said the problem seems to lie in elementary school growth and only the Whittier options seemed to address those specific needs. However, Robinson said they still were short-term solutions at a disproportionately higher cost and he believed the district needed to wait.
Superintendent Steve Razidlo said some on the district's administrative team voiced differing opinions. He said they favored reopening Whittier, but at the same time the move would require about 500 students to once again change schools as the attendance boundaries were adjusted. He said they did not support moving Baxter fourth-graders to Forestview Middle School. If in the future Brainerd High School needs additional space, Razidlo said administrators favor using Washington Educational Services Building for ninth- through 12th-graders, rather than as an eighth-grade center.
Razidlo said the administrative recommendation is to monitor enrollment and continue planning for future growth.
"With time, we may get more certainty about some of the unknowns," Razidlo said, referring to several budget uncertainties.
He said the board may wish to establish another timeline as they continue with planning for future elementary school growth, as well as conduct a community survey.
In other committee news, board members learned that the district has hired Paul Sandelin to represent the district in the College Drive reconstruction project. School board attorney Tom Fitzpatrick also represents the city of Brainerd and at the last board meeting he told board members he couldn't represent both in case of a legal dispute.
Steve Lund, director of business services, said he's received a letter from the city requesting a meeting with Brainerd's Safety and Public Works Committee but the city has yet to provide the board with information about an easement acquisition offer, the outcome of a potential signal light at Fifth and Quince streets and any financial expectations of the district. He said the city did inform the district that its assessments for the project are about $42,000, which is close to earlier estimates.
"Until we get that information (on easement acquisitions), it's premature that we spend our time and their time in a formal meeting," Lund explained.
JODIE TWEED may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 855-5858.
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