Milaca schools feel space pinch

Milaca Elementary preschoolers enjoyed a parents’ day last December with games, crafts and activities. The school board is currently discussing ways in which to solve the school’s space crunch, which has limited the district’s ability to expand the popular and successful preschool program.
Milaca Elementary preschoolers enjoyed a parents’ day last December with games, crafts and activities. The school board is currently discussing ways in which to solve the school’s space crunch, which has limited the district’s ability to expand the popular and successful preschool program.

For the upcoming academic year this fall, the Milaca School Board will be giving up its conference room to Early Childhood as classes in the elementary school fill and space is becoming scarce — and that only solves one of its classroom shortage problems.

To that end, the board has been discussing ways in which it can provide its growing student population with enough room to learn and grow.

During the past several months, School Board members, along with Superintendent Jerry Hansen, have been debating the course of action. Hansen began suggesting options in June, which included using the district’s lease levy to rent additional space, installing portable classrooms on the district’s land or asking residents to pass a referendum to build more classroom space.

A quorum of School Board members, including Todd Quaintance, Jody Chambers, Aimee Struffert, Mark Herzing and Bryan Rensenbrink, met with Hansen last Tuesday before the regularly scheduled board meeting to discuss those options. Board Member Judy Pearson and Board Chair Jeff Larsen were absent.

The lease levy option would allow the district to levy an additional $162 per pupil without voter approval, which allows for approximately $270,000 per year in revenue. Hansen said those funds would be used to rent an existing facility or build-to-rent additional classroom space. If the board chooses this route, it would house Early Childhood/Family Education in an off-site facility, which would free up classrooms at Milaca Elementary, the school currently feeling the tightest space pinch.

Short vs. long-term

“Here’s my concern with doing the lease levy,” Quaintance said. “We’re putting money somewhere, but at the end of 10 years, we have nothing to show for it. It’s a Band-Aid fix that you could be stuck with for a considerable amount of time.”

The time period Quaintance referred to is the suggested rental contract Hansen said would be standard in such an agreement. He said commercial entities that would rent their space to the district would want a long-term, 10- to 15-year contract to recoup any construction or remodeling costs it would take to renovate a structure to suit educational purposes.

Also, Hansen said, building a facility specifically to rent may not make financial or space sense.

“The amount of money that we can access from a lease levy is small,” Hansen said. “So, if you use all of that to build an extension, you’ll have a very small structure.”

Quaintance was also unsure of having a separate building too far from the main campus.

“What kind of program do we want to build on an island and leave on an island?” he asked.

“Early Childhood Education,” Hansen answered.

The superintendent also cautioned the board members that building additional classrooms right away may not make sense in the long term. While the incoming first-grade class is larger than usual, that trend of growth may not continue in years to come.

“I have no idea what the future holds for that,” Hansen said. “I would be hesitant to go out and build classrooms just yet, until we need them.”

Uncertain times

During the past few years, the student population in Milaca has grown only slightly more than projected. Part of that increase can be attributed to the district’s free all-day, every-day kindergarten program. But with state funding now helping more and more districts offer the expanded kindergarten program, Milaca may lose some of its competitive advantage in attracting open-enrolled students from nearby districts.

“Any other building that we do, we’d have to either take it out of the general fund or go to the voters,” Hansen said, adding that the general fund isn’t an option and a referendum takes several years — the space needs are immediate.

For the quickly approaching 2013-2014 school year, the elementary school is still searching for answers to house its more than 1,000 students. Even after converting the conference room into a teaching space, it still needs an additional room. Hansen suggested moving one elementary class to the high school and having some senior high teachers move around a bit more in a mobile classroom situation.

“I am absolutely opposed to continue to push our elementary into the high school,” Quaintance said. “Soon, we’ll have auditorium classrooms at the high school. It’s not ideally want we want. We have music rooms right next to math classes right now. And I don’t want to put people on carts.”

Quaintance alluded to starting the referendum process immediately, inferring that he believed that was the district’s best option.

Forging ahead

“I think we need to start that process today,” he said. “Not six months from now, not a year from now. We can’t wait until we’re four classrooms behind or five classrooms behind.”

Chambers agreed, saying perhaps it’s time the district had another demographer take a look at the district’s projected growth.

“I want the assessment to include room for growth,” she said. “Not just the bare minimum.”

The lack of space is already limiting the district’s ability to expand popular and successful programs, such as preschool.

Every viable option was discussed at the workshop meeting, including the ever-allusive concept of consolidation with nearby districts.

“It might be the most responsible solution to the situation,” Quaintance said. “I absolutely think it’s a worthwhile conversation.”

Hansen said he would put the question to the superintendents of surrounding districts, but he warned that school consolidations are often a long, drawn-out, stressful process.

“Consolidation is really tough,” Hansen said. “It’s usually not something to go for until their backs are really up against the wall in terms of funding.”

One option that none of the board members seemed to keen on, but nevertheless a viable option, was also mentioned.

“Not that I’m a fan, but can we do a year lease on portables?” Rensenbrink posed.

Hansen said the contractor would probably want a lease longer than a single year, but said he’d look into the possibility.

“Why can’t we build them ourselves?” Rensenbrink countered. “We have a building trades program.”

Hansen said he wasn’t sure if it was possible, considering the liability, but he’d check out the possibility.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I’ve never heard of it done.”

Quaintance, who had the experience of attending class in a portable structure while the new schools were being built decades ago, was not thrilled about the portable option, and neither were the other board members.

Hansen said he would be exploring all of the districts options, including making “walkthroughs” in existing buildings they could rent, discovering whether the high school’s building trades program could construct temporary classrooms, district consolidation and having a demographer study the area to project future growth in preparation for a bond referendum.