At the beginning of Tuesday night’s special meeting, Alexandria School Board Chairman Dean Anderson encouraged board members to take a good look at all of the building options, avoid “group-think” and not hold back with their opinions.

They had no trouble following those instructions.

During a free-wheeling, two-hour work session, the board looked at about a dozen possible sites to move district services and, in some cases, other areas of operation. They considered short- and long-term solutions, leasing vs. buying, and the pros and cons of housing various operations in two separate buildings or many in one.

In the end, several options were eliminated, and two appeared to rise to the top: leasing the Spirit building on Aga Drive, which coincidentally at one time was the home for district services; and leasing a portion of the Turning Leaf Business Center.

The Turning Leaf building had emerged as the first option for the board when in January it approved a purchase agreement for the entire building, with plans to lease space to businesses located there, including Tastefully Simple.

However, the purchase was subject to approval from the Minnesota Department of Education, and when members of the school’s Budget/Facilities Committee believed that approval would not be forthcoming, the school board rescinded its purchase agreement on Jan. 27.

What is sending the school district in this direction is the creation of additional elementary classes to address growing class sizes. Plans to turn the district offices, Community Education offices and data center in Woodland Elementary into four classrooms in time for the 2020-21 school year have the district shopping for a place to relocate its staff that currently works there.

The district is also looking for a place, either immediately or down the road, to house other areas that are scattered around town.

“Now we’re essentially at (several) locations,” Anderson said, referencing the recreation gymnastics being housed in the Spirit building, Shenanigans and two gyms in the county service center building, the transportation shop at the fairgrounds, Transition Tech in the Runestone Area Education District building, and food services, transportation repair and grounds at the college.

One building or two

The buildings potentially for lease or purchase that meet the approximately 35,000-square-foot immediate needs are the Viking Plaza Mall, the former Kmart building, Conlin’s Furniture, Turning Leaf Business Center and the Spirit building.

Those under 14,000 square feet that would only be part of the solution included the Runestone Area Education District building, the former Sears spot at Midway Mall, and the Echo Press, Clifton Larson Allen, Caring Hands Dental and PrimeWest buildings.

In reviewing all potential options Tuesday, Anderson pointed out there was a wide variation in estimated costs. Along with that came other considerations such as the much higher costs in renovating a big-box space into office space, internet connectivity issues and considerably higher data costs with some sites. Some had both pluses and minuses that were discussed.

Kevin Brezina, the district’s director of technology, explained that since the district partnered with ALP in building the fiber network in Alexandria, using that network saves the district a significant amount of money annually.

He also informed the board that the district currently has a data center in Woodland and a backup at the high school. Some of the potential building sites had full or partial data centers, while others did not. Having to build one from the ground up can cost several hundred thousand dollars, he said.

Both of the two leading options do have data centers.

Consensus emerges

Board members and Superintendent Julie Critz sorted through the details pertaining to the smaller buildings and explored how that would work. The possibility of something being a temporary answer caused board member Bob Cunniff to state a preference for a one-time solution.

“Are we willing to utilize more than one location, and do relocation more than one time? What I’m hearing from you is, yeah,” he said. “I'm kind of the other way. I'm looking at a big, big picture, and if we could do it right in one location.”

Board member Angie Krebs agreed with Cunniff. She thought the Turning Leaf building was a good long-term fit, and the Spirit building was also an attractive option.

The Spirit building, at 55,000 square feet, is not without its challenges. The building has water, roof and parking lot issues. It is now owned by a bank, Critz said, but a private party has shown interest in buying the building if the district leases it long term.

Following more discussion, the smaller building options began dropping, and the higher renovation costs associated with the bigger retail spaces caused other board members to drop them as options.

Board member Alan Zeithamer said another consideration is the advantage of having its school leaders together, and how that was demonstrated by the merging of Lakes Area Recreation staff with the Community Education staff.

“There's an efficiency, an energy that evolves that's greater than what the two by themselves used to be. That's important, because we're in a business that involves a lot of people,” he said. “We want to minimize the number of interruptions for that team.”

Board member Dave Anderson spoke of how the district had the foresight to build schools that residents could be proud of in Woodland and the high school.

“The district has always been above the curve,” he said. “I think we need to look into getting our own spot, too. I just feel that if we get a lease, it's got to be long term and have teeth in it and be to our own satisfaction. We deserve that.”

Critz will continue to work on the remaining options and come back to the board with her findings before the next board meeting on March 16.