Report: Replace South Elementary

It would cost close to $9 million to do needed repairs at South Elementary, and that still would not add space to replace the rented 14-unit portable building that houses classrooms for the second grade.

That is one of the reports the 99-member audience heard during the public meeting Thursday, Nov. 7 in the PHS gymnasium. The meeting was held to give an update on what citizen committees recently found while researching the district’s facilities needs to come up with an improvement plan that would look toward immediate and long-range facilities planning.

The committees are part of a process that Superintendent Julia Espe says will result in a bonding referendum next May.

The meeting presenter was Vaughn Dierks, a partner in the St. Paul-based Wold Architects and Engineers Inc., which the district has contracted with.

The school facilities study is about two-thirds completed. Next, a citizens committee will come up with possible facilities options based on the research done by the criteria committees and what a community finance committee determines the public taxpayers are willing to support.

The School Board is supposed to decide in December on a proposal for facilities improvement to run in a referendum, according to Espe.

No school construction site has yet been chosen if a new school were to be built. The district owns land on the north end of Princeton sufficient for a building to replace South Elementary, which has kindergarten through second grade. Some district residents have expressed that any new Princeton school should be built in Baldwin Township.

The site evaluation committee has stated that “it would be difficult to justify purchasing additional land or acquiring/developing another site” than what the district owns.

Hint of possible proposal

The facilities-improvement process began with eight citizen committees, but ended up with seven because the physical conditions committee combined with the operations and quality committee.

That combined committee gave the strongest suggestion of what the district’s voters could be presented with in a referendum. The suggestion can be found in small, italic letters in the printed data that Dierks used in his presentation: “While the (combined) committee understands the need to quantify repair needs and associated costs for South Elementary, the general consensus is that given the other significant functional issues associated with the building, and the extent of portable classrooms to replace, the best option for financial investment may be in construction of a new facility vs. reinvestment in physical conditions for this building as a continued elementary school. This is not a recommendation but a strong suggestion to consider for this factor.”

The same committee concluded:

• Priority work should be focused on South Elementary and all priority levels should be addressed.

• Work at the high school should coincide with other renovation initiatives or be addressed if at a critical level.

• A long-term approach for addressing physical needs must be developed by the district to assist with future decisions.

The committee also agreed that portable classrooms are not calculated in any of the repair costs, nor does the committee support investing in them.

Bus loading area problem

The site evaluation committee pointed out a transportation problem area at South Elementary. It stated that the existing bus loop at South is integrated with the parking and drop off zone, and it should be separated, from a vehicular safety standpoint.

Safety and security

The safety and security committee said it is a high priority that all of the school buildings have secure vestibules to control anyone entering during operational hours and that visitors should not be admitted without authorization. It also recommended, among other things, installing surveillance devices and making sure no one could do something to prevent people from exiting a building.

The committee stated that the middle school bus yard where students make bus transfers needs options for better monitoring, observation, and safety and security.

The safety and security committee noted that the portable buildings, which includes a double unit at the high school, are a concern for severe weather issues and should be replaced or, at a minimum, be securely connected to their primary school.

Technology committee

This committee called the portables “problematic,” in that “no one supports them and the educational experience should be similar (to other buildings). The committee recommended that improving facilities should include providing for the technology needs of students entering high school and also looking to the potential technology needs for elementary students.

Facilities should be designed to be flexible to accommodate future technology needs in the schools.

Where are the students going?

The enrollment, capacity and grade configuration committee determined that of the students residing in the Princeton district who leave the district as part of open enrollment, about half attend the Elk River district. It also found that the configuration of grades in the elementary schools in immediate neighboring districts are the same as Princeton’s in some cases. As far as grade configuration, the most variance in this is among elementary schools, according to the committee.

Occupancy capacity vs. enrollment

The same committee also compared the enrollment capacity of each of the district’s four classroom buildings to their actual numbers, as well as the potential enrollment and is as follows:

• South Elementary (grades K-2) – Capacity 461 including the portables; enrollment 745; potential enrollment 765.

• North Elementary (3-5) – Capacity 770; enrollment 805; potential enrollment 808.

• Middle school (6-8) – Capacity 832; enrollment 815; potential enrollment 900.

• High school (9-12) – Capacity 1,128; enrollment 1,005; potential 1,296.

The committee noted that the entire second grade of 225-300 students has its classes in portable units and that no building in the district can accommodate an entire grade shift.

The committee recommended that all the buildings should operate at full capacity, not be overbuilt and should have flexibility for space.

The five-year enrollment projection for the district is declining enrollment, and the committee suggested keeping that in mind.

Superintendent cautions

Espe cautioned about dealing with enrollment projections. She explained that from her experience with the St. Cloud school district, she found that St. Cloud made a plan to reverse its enrollment pattern and  as result its enrollment rose. Princeton “has a lot of talented people” to come up with ways to at least keep the “babies born here and the kids living here, attend school in Princeton,” Espe said.

Espe promised that the referendum proposal the Princeton School Board produces will be the “right fit,” with “nothing fancy,” nor will any building be designed to “look cute, just reasonable.” She called the last referendum, which was in 2007, “a little big.”

The 2007 referendum had three questions, with passage of the second two questions reliant on passing the first, and the voters rejected all three.

The first question sought approval of $44 million in capital improvements, of which $27.5 million would have been used to build a new South Elementary and about $16 million was to go for North Elementary addition/remodelling.

Question 2 asked for $10 million for air quality improvements at the high school. Question 3 sought a $603,000 operating levy.

Since the referendum, the district completed a major air quality project at the high school, completed 10 additional classrooms at North Elmentary and passed a $1.5 million operating levy.

Meeting state guidelines

Dierks pointed to the conclusions of the educational and programming needs committee that none of the spaces at South Elementary meets the minimal guidelines on space from the Minnesota Department of Education.

Other recommendations on space from the criteria committees included:

• Adding more performing arts space equivalent to 150 seats because the PHS performing arts center is so booked for school district needs the community has difficulty renting it.

• Increasing the gymnasium space by three full-size basketball courts, not necessarily all at one location, and increasing outdoor athletic facilities.

• Modernizing the high school’s industrial technology spaces.

• Improving the function and flow of the high school kitchen and cafeteria.

• Making the school locker rooms handicap accessible under federal rules.

• Improving facilities so that appropriately sized community education spaces can be located inside school buildings.

• Making the district pool, which is located at the high school, functional, either through renovation or new construction.

• Ensuring the high school classrooms meet state guidelines.

• Adding more special education space.

The Activities and Community Use committee also said it is important for the district, through community education, to support space in school facilities for miscellaneous activities such as arcade games, reading areas, billiards, concessions, teen club, etc.

Any option or solution should not be a “Taj Mahal” or be overly designed, but it should consider potential future expansion, the committee decided.

The summary report said it would be difficult in a proposal at this time to adhere to the suggested priorities for the high school. The district should compare a project to make South Elementary repairs and replacing portables while meeting program needs to a project that would replace South Elementary, it said.

The report suggested there is strong support for replacing South Elementary.

Next public input meeting

A second public input meeting was set for 7 p.m. Dec. 10 in the high school’s performing arts center. A free supper will be offered an hour prior in the school cafeteria.

The public will be able to hear the options for a referendum that will have been worked out between the options and community finance committees.

Espe said on Monday she was pleased with the attendance at Thursday’s public meeting. The next steps in the process will be a little more difficult, Espe added. She noted that 20-25 citizens so far have signed up to be on the options committee, which could take a total of 30. Anyone interested in being on it can call her office at 763-389-6190, she said.

Espe called the job ahead “pretty heavy lifting for community members,” and added: “I’m thrilled to have people in the community willing to work on the project that can be a reality in the options. I am impressed with the community of Princeton.”