Board eyes Prairie View expansion

Managing Editor

by Jim Boyle
Editor
The Elk River Area School Board met Monday to talk about its facilities needs, but first it took time to look at the previous recommendations of its 35-member facilities committee.

The group was not shy about what is saw as an impending need to add more space in Otsego where Prairie View Elementary and Middle School will open in September.

Superintendent Dan Bittman, who assumed his new position less than a month ago and has studied the group’s findings, told the School Board he wants to honor what the committee has done and consider how it folds into all of the current and future initiatives.

The group, picked from 82 community member applicants from across the district and led by TeamWorks International, concluded a few things related to facilities and grounds, Bittman said.

The conclusions include:
•providing dedicated special education spaces
•equitable athletic facilities
•more classroom space

The group found more space would be needed in the very near future, especially in the communities that serve Otsego and Rogers students.

Most surprising, perhaps, was that the newest school, which had yet to be named when the group finished its work, would need an addition — no matter how the boundary lines were diced up — soonest of all.

Bittman explained Monday a dichotomy in the recommendations of the committee. While some will require going out to the community and seeing how certain needs stack up against others, the need for more room at Prairie View is essentially immediate and within the recommendations of the group.

“It’s not urgent today,” Bittman said. “…without growth we have space for our kids.”

The same can’t be said if there is enrollment growth at Prairie View.

“That’s what creates the urgency,” Bittman said.

Bittman and his cabinet have been exploring the options, which range from lease-levy agreements and a bond referendum. Bittman is convinced as the district considers the full picture of the district, it will need to go out for a bond referendum in the future.

“You heard me say while I think we should consider all of the options, you won’t hear me recommend going out to the public with a bond without having lots more information about all of these things,” Bittman said, noting he would support what the board decides but felt it important note this boundary he had for himself.

Prairie View will be full — without growth — in 2019
The school opens to children in kindergarten through sixth grade this fall and will provide an early childhood component. It will become an E-7 school in the fall of 2018, and an E-8 school in the fall of 2019. At least 1,000 students are expected to be in the school by then.

District 728 administrators said July 17 that the committee’s conclusion are truer now than when they came up with them.

Prairie View Elementary and Middle School has already recovered eight to 10 students per grade that it lost to other educational options, pushing its opening day projections from 540 to 597 in kindergarten through sixth grade.

By staggering the introduction of seventh and eighth grade enrollments, the student body will ease into the building but administrators are convinced now is the time to develop a game plan to have space ready in 2019.

“Even without growth the school will be at 997 students (not including early childhood),” Joe Stangler, the administrator of research and assessment, said.

Stangler stated Otsego has more than 1,200 single family lots already platted, and city officials have estimated they could see 200 building permits a year for the next five to 10 years.

School Board Director Gregg Peppin stated he was skeptical of municipal projections, and added he would like to see a deep dive on the demographics. Other board members were not skeptical and listened to administrators talk about the potential approaches.

Two options include going out for a bond referendum or using other methods that do not require voter approval.

A lease-levy could produce about $7.5 million. District administrators also have their eyes on money still left from the most recent bond referendum for nearly $100 million. As the district closes in on the end of the construction, there is about $4 million left with fewer and fewer things to drain this pool of money.

These two things combined could provide enough for an addition.

So could a bond referendum. School Board Chairman Shane Steinbrecher spelled out a time line that could work to bring a spring bond.

He wasn’t pushing it, but said if the School Board was comfortable with a direction by the start of school year, it could be pushed out to the community to get answers back by January. That, he said, would give the district enough time meet its obligations to run a bond referendum.

Board members appear to lean toward the lease-levy route, knowing that a future bond could be used to pay it off early.
School Board Member Joel Nelson expressed opposition to going out for a referendum on something the district will build anyway.

“One of the reasons I am sitting here is the discussions you had on all-day, every-day kindergarten,” Nelson said. “I was on the other side then. You asked for the money and I was one of the voters that said ‘no,’ and then … you approved it (after the referendum was defeated).”

Nelson said he would rather do the lease-levy and explain what the district has to do moving forward with that part of the proposal because school officials know it is going to have to happen.

Bittman and Steinbrecher will work with board members to determine what information is needed for them to get comfortable with making a decision and time lines.

“We appreciate the work that you do,” Bittman told the board. “These are big decisions.”