Following a well-attended special meeting to discuss the potential acquisition of the Turning Leaf Business Center, the Alexandria School Board unanimously approved the cancellation of its purchase agreement at its regular meeting, Monday, Jan. 27.

Purchasing the building would have been a difficult process. On Jan. 8, the board unanimously approved purchasing the TLBC building at 1920 Turning Leaf Lane NW in Alexandria, with the intention of moving administration offices and Community Education out of Woodland Elementary School, making room for additional classroom space there.

However, the purchase agreement was subject to approval by the Minnesota Department of Education during a “review and comment” process that could take 60-90 days. Information the school's Budget/Facilities Committee recently received from MDE led the committee to believe approval would most likely not occur.

In the wake of that meeting, the board’s decision to rescind the purchase did not come as a surprise. In a front-page story in last Friday’s Echo Press, school board Chairman Dean Anderson confirmed that state approval did not appear likely and that the board would be taking up the matter on Monday.

Superintendent Julie Critz said MDE representatives informed the committee that the district would need to use the entire TLBC building to increase its chances of approval. The board wanted to buy the building, lease 50% of the building’s space to other tenants such as Tastefully Simple and grow into the other half of the space gradually.

The board is going to look into other options to house administration and Community Education. The departments would need to be out of Woodland by May 1 to remodel the area over the summer.

The district is also looking into relocating recreation and gymnastic space and special education services. The best building option, Critz said, would be to house all three: administration, gymnastics and special education.

Critz said the board is hoping to explore other options and make a decision on a new lease space in the next six to eight weeks. Figuring out where to move the district offices first would give the school board some time to decide where to put the recreation and gymnastic space and special education services, she said.

Community comments

During the special meeting, which was scheduled prior to the committee’s meeting with MDE, district residents were given the option to inform the board of any concerns.

Some in attendance expressed excitement for the reduction of elementary class sizes and moving the district office, and some expressed concern about paying taxes or surprise that the board took action to potentially acquire a building.

Jodi Gray, a gymnastics coach and former Lakes Area Recreation board member, told the school board how important the gymnastics program is to her. She has two daughters in gymnastics and isn’t pleased with the current gymnastics building.

More than 400 girls and boys sign up for gymnastics every session, she said. During the high school gymnastics season, the space is shared with those athletes and there isn’t enough space to accommodate everyone.

“I think it limits the high school program to grow, because they have to share that space with the rec program at the same time,” Gray said.

Other problems with the building, she said, were: its age; the foam pit floods when it rains; the lack of a locker room; a dangerous parking lot filled with potholes; and the building being inaccessible for disabled people.

Board treasurer Pam Carlson said she went to a gymnastics meet recently and the gymnasts had to stop what they were doing to let audience members get through, due to the poor setup of the floor plan. There weren’t many seating spaces and the majority of spectators were standing.

Rod Johnson echoed Gray’s comments, agreeing that there is a need for a better facility. However, his main point to the school board was that he wanted it to be more transparent with residents, specifically for the potential building acquisition.

He suggested the board give more information during the operating levy referendum campaign. “Why wasn’t it brought up that ‘hey, we got these other issues’?” he said. “Be more honest with the people. They want to hear it. They’re not against it.”

Anderson apologized and said the board’s intention is to be straightforward. The rapid timeline of the referendum passing in November and then trying to secure a building soon after that was what caused the board to make quick decisions, he said. Efforts to better communicate with the public are going to be made.

Other options were considered prior to the TLBC purchase agreement, including the Conlin’s Furniture building and space at the Viking Plaza Mall.

An attendee brought up the idea of looking into the old First Lutheran Church building, which is owned by the county.

Anderson said the board considered it before, but it wouldn’t be ideal to move into because it doesn’t convert well into office space. Douglas County Commissioner Heather Larson was in attendance and said county officials would be more than happy to talk about the district potentially owning the building.

Larson also said decisions don’t have to be made overnight and the process can be slowed down. Other attendees had similar comments about the speed of the school board’s process of reducing class sizes.

Anderson said the board moved quickly with reducing class sizes so students could benefit sooner.

The board also may consider the old Kmart building, among other options, Critz said.