Approximately 150 people attended the Kingsland community meeting on facilities and posed questions for the school board and administration.  GRETCHEN MENSINK LOVEJOY/SPRING VALLEY TRIBUNE
Approximately 150 people attended the Kingsland community meeting on facilities and posed questions for the school board and administration. GRETCHEN MENSINK LOVEJOY/SPRING VALLEY TRIBUNE
"There is no ill will towards one town. The purpose here is to best serve the educational needs of our kids. There's no end result we hope will happen...the goal is not to lose students, families or credibility with families. We want to continue to build what's good here at Kingsland," said Kingsland Elementary and Middle School Principal Chris Priebe, addressing a gathering of approximately 150 Kingsland School District residents during a community meeting held last Tuesday night at the Kingsland High School cafeteria.

The meeting was meant to share information about proposed facility changes within the district and for citizens of both Wykoff and Spring Valley to voice their concerns. Priebe spoke in reply to questions posed by audience members who were given the opportunity to ask exactly what is or isn't being discussed by the board and to pose their own questions about the facility rearrangements and determination that students should be educated in one building instead of two.

Before the question and answer portion of the meeting, Kingsland School Board of Directors Chairman Doug Plaehn outlined what the board and administration have perceived to be the district's facility needs in relation to students' educational needs. He opened by saying that "enrollment is the number one driver of funding from the state - in the last 20 years, enrollment has been on a downward trend, but we're actually seeing a little bit of a change in that trend, expecting it to change. At the end of the 1997-1998 school year, we had 1,033 students, and in 2008-2009, the last year we had seventh and eighth graders at the middle school, we had 696 students. At the end of the 2012-2013 school year, we had 609, and currently, we're at 617 students. We're starting to see some improvements - in kindergarten through third grade, we're starting to see some larger classes."

An estimated 110 students open enroll into other districts for various reasons, partly because they might live on the district's edges, such as students who live in Fillmore, Racine, or near Fountain.

Plaehn explained that with the inception of the College in the Schools (CIS) program, students no longer leave the district to obtain a college level education and earn college credit, meaning that there are approximately 20 students who remain in the district now who might have chosen to participate in the Post-Secondary Education Options Program (PSEOP) if that had been their only choice.

The CIS program requires more flexible classroom space. Participation in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) curriculum program Project Lead the Way (PLTW) has garnered the school statewide and national recognition, but also requires that students have access to more laboratory space and flexible classrooms as well.

Furthermore, the growing preschool through third grade classes and school age child care program (SACC) have shown the board and administration that there is a need for more general classroom space, but administration has also discovered there is a "lack of continuity in program delivery and less opportunity for collaboration at the middle school with a smaller staff" due to the middle school's location in Wykoff, resulting in a beneficial isolation of students who are still at an impressionable age, but also in an non-advantageous isolation of staff.

He shared that deferred maintenance at both the high school-elementary school building and the middle school has added up over the past years, and that the "most significant is the aging mechanical system at the middle school - there's no air conditioning, the electrical system needs to be safer and more adaptable to technology, the roof is leaking, and the gym floor in the new gym has mercury in it...the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) and (others) have made air quality recommendations to remove that floor." He added that the parking lot needs work, the fire alarm system should be updated, and that there are other "general updates" necessary to keep the building fit for daily use. "The high school-elementary needs updates to the air handling system, the clock system and building controls. If we were to do it all at one time, it would be between $6.5 million and $7 million."

Plaehn related that the board has examined options that would bring all students to the high school building in Spring Valley - encompassing the construction of a field house and possibly a performing arts center, as well as a separate classroom for the SACC program - at an estimated cost of $14.5 million to $20.5 million, which he acknowledged seems a large sum less than a decade after the completion of a new elementary wing addition on the high school in Spring Valley, and especially so because the costs would be on top of property taxes already assessed to pay for the expansion of the Spring Valley facility following the closing of the Spring Valley-Kingsland elementary building on South Broadway.

"We're here talking about a facility project roughly seven years after the last facility project," he said." We're concerned about meeting students' needs. Right now, if we were to build here, it would hold about 850 students, but what if we were to grow to 900 students, or even back to 1,000?"

Audience members were given the chance to write questions for the board and administration to answer, and one of them concerned Plaehn's statement about district growth, asking, "It seems like $14.5 million to $20.5 million is a lot of money...do you have a contingency plan for growth? Our concern is that it's a $14.5 million to $20.5 million gamble."

Plaehn replied that the board and administration are "pretty confident that we can get 850 students into this building if we make some changes, but the question is how long it might take until we have another 250 students."

Another audience member inquired as to whether the district had consulted with other successful multi-site school districts for advice on what might be changed to continue as one.

Kingsland Superintendent John McDonald answered, "We've looked at our neighbors...it's a matter of money put into the site. There are repair costs to both buildings. We're looking at all options we have available."

Someone submitted the question, "Who estimated the costs for the improvements in Wykoff?"

Kingsland Building and Grounds Director Scott Stockdale related that the district had worked "quite a bit with Troy Miller" of TSP, a Twin Cities architectural firm, and that he himself had also gotten quotes on how much the deferred maintenance repairs might cost.

Someone else asked, "Why do we need more space if the middle school is not being used to its full potential?"

Plaehn took that question, citing, "It's not about more space - if we could repurpose the space we have and reuse it, it's about how we use it. Really, the space we'd be adding on is physical education space, because we'd be losing two gyms if we were to move all students to this building."

The matter of why students should be moved to Spring Valley instead of to Wykoff was a reoccurring one, a topic one person broached by asking, "If it's only seven miles to Spring Valley from Wykoff, isn't it only seven miles to Wykoff from Spring Valley?"

One constituent wanted to know why the district had failed to keep up repairs at the schools - particularly the middle school - over the past years, and another wanted to know whether any improvements or maintenance originally included in the 2006 referendum had been done since the elementary was constructed.

Plaehn and fellow board member Kristin Beck told how the improvements had been written into plans for the referendum, but when the first referendum failed and the board members of the time scaled it back to bring it back to the community, then the economic downturn ensued in 2008, the district was forced to choose between maintaining programming and staff and maintaining its buildings, ultimately choosing to maintain as much programming as possible. The recession, they noted, combined with the reduction of programming, resulted in students leaving the district to open enroll to Chatfield, Stewartville and Fillmore Central in search of challenging curriculum and extracurricular activities.

"The first year I was on the board, we made $550,000 in cuts," said Beck. "I'd like to thank the taxpayers of four years ago for supporting the operating referendum, or we wouldn't have College in the Schools or Project Lead the Way. We do need to thank you for your support of that."

There were numerous more questions to answer, such as whether there is grant funding available to build or repair the buildings. If there aren't those funds available, could health and safety funding cover deferred maintenance items, with the answer being some of which it can, dependent on the item in question. Another question was whether the board has considered what happens if the middle school building is closed and another district establishes a bus route there to pick up one or two students.

Plaehn offered a summation. "We're all part of the same district. We take pride in it. It is a concern."

That's when Priebe stepped up to say that "there's no ill will" between the board and the towns and that students' education is the primary force behind decisions made in the past and in the future.

Several audience members stood to express their opinions of the facility proposals being perused, including Judy Frank, who observed the purpose of the meeting - to include the community in a process that will be ongoing - noting that the single site building designs presented were the result of study sessions board and administration held throughout the past 18 months, but at which the public seemingly did not feel it was welcome. "I want to thank you. Please continue to have this kind of meetings. I'd like to thank you for your hard work."

Plaehn then closed the meeting. "I'd like to thank you for coming, and the board will gather information and will take the time to look it over, move on from here."

The next regular meeting of the Kingsland School Board of Directors is set for Wednesday, April 21, at 7 p.m. in the Kingsland High School conference room. The public is welcome to attend. For more information, call (507) 346-7276 or log onto the Kingsland website at www.kingsland.k12.mn.us.