Alexandria School Board members toured two buildings Friday, as they continue to work on solving a puzzle that has district offices and Community Education moving out of Woodland Elementary School to make room for more classrooms.

With time winding down on making the moves happen by the start of the next school year, the board held a special session last week.

Maintaining or reducing elementary school class sizes was part of an operating levy referendum passed in November. However, every attempt to address that issue by moving the offices has been met with roadblocks.

The latest setback came on two fronts: questions about the suitability of both the single building and multiple-building solutions, and whether going ahead with the plan was the right thing to do considering the impact being felt by the coronavirus pandemic.

“I am concerned about what has happened with our whole society right now. Maybe this isn't the right time to do this,” board member Bob Cunniff said at the March 16 meeting. “I'm not real comfortable with either one of them today.”

After considerable discussion, the board decided to set up tours in three groups so as not to have a quorum together at once, and to reconvene at another special meeting at 6 p.m. on Monday, March 30.

Where to go

The two options the district zeroed in on are:

  • The one-building solution involves leasing 35,117 square feet of Turning Leaf Business Center. It would provide space to relocate district services, Community Education and Recreation, Food and Nutrition Services, Building and Grounds, and possibly other operations.

  • A multiple-building option, involving the purchase of the 8,100-square-foot old PrimeWest Health building in Easton Place II, at 2209 Jefferson St. It would hold district services as well as Community Education and Recreation, but perhaps no more. The other part of the proposal included leasing the Spirit building on Aga Drive, which at 22,640 square feet would remain the home for the recreation gymnastics program and could also work for the Transition Center.

Initial indications are the cost of either solution would be comparable, with a tax impact of less than $18 per year for the average-priced home valued at $220,000.

Board member Alan Zeithamer was poised to continue with the project for two reasons. Some bonds would be coming off the books in the next two years, and the total tax impact from the operating levy referendum, once other levy calculations were factored in, amounted to $50 less than the $117 per year that was projected for that average-priced home.

However, three other members voiced reservations.

“These figures look good to me, but we're in such unchartered waters it's hard to go with anything. I'm struggling with this,” board member Dave Anderson said.

“I'm struggling with it, too,” said board Chairman Dean Anderson, who earlier that day said he had closed his dental business when the Minnesota Board of Dentistry recommended all dentist offices halt all but emergency care due to the coronavirus outbreak.

“It' s different this week. I know people who are not working,” board member Angie Krebs said. “It's just a $20 impact, but it's $20.”

Reservations about TLBC

Turning Leaf Business Center had been the board’s first option this winter, when on Jan. 8 it unanimously approved a purchase agreement for the entire building, with the idea of collecting rent from current tenants that include Tastefully Simple. After indications that the Minnesota Department of Education may not approve the setup, the school board canceled its purchase agreement on Jan. 27.

Board members looked at around a dozen purchase or lease options at a Feb. 18 work session and narrowed them significantly. TLBC was one of the top plans considered, only this time it was to lease and only involved a portion of the building.

Cunniff and Dave Anderson each praised that option last week, but Dean Anderson was less enthusiastic.

“If we were to move the district office and build a building, what would it look like? I would propose it would look a lot like this floor does,” he said of the second floor at Woodland that was built a decade ago for such purposes. That stands in stark contrast to what he noticed about TLBC.

“There’s one piece here, another downstairs. It seems scattered and disjointed and not what we would build,” he said. “It's not the obvious way to arrange it.”

If this was going to be a long-term solution, the chairman wondered why they would look at what he called an awkward arrangement as a permanent solution. He also noted the building is for sale and what would happen with a new buyer.

“There are an awful lot of doubts and unknowns,” Dean Anderson said.

Zeithamer said he wasn’t aware of any other projects that were being postponed and noted that this project would help stimulate the area’s economy by putting people to work on it.

“We've put too much time and effort and energy into this. I’m not ready to throw in the towel,” said board member Pam Carlson a day after the governor had announced he was shutting down the state’s schools so they could make preparations for distance learning. “ This is probably the worst day that we could make this decision.”

“With so many people hurting right now and we don't know where we're going, I'd like 10 days to figure it out,” Dave Anderson said. “The setting doesn't bother me, it's just the time.”

In other matters

The School Board approved:

  • School calendars for the next two years, following several meetings of a committee consisting of teachers, parents and administrators. Scott Heckert, director of human resources, said that school will end on a Friday in 2021 with graduation that same day. The following year school would end on a Thursday, with graduation on Friday.

  • Tentative settlements with Food and Nutrition Services employees and the K-12 Classified group (employees that don’t fit into other categories) for the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years.

  • Adding one full-time-equivalent of administrative support at Woodland Elementary.

  • A capital improvement plan for the 2020-21 school year. A roof replacement for Discovery Middle School will be spread out over time.