Principals weigh in on proposed St. Louis Park school referendum

By Sue Webber
Contributing Writer

Principals from each of the district schools spoke passionately at an April 17 St. Louis Park School Board study session about what a proposed $100.9 million referendum would mean to their students.

The board at meetings earlier in the month debated a referendum, but did not reach a decision on it. The board is expected to discuss the referendum again at its April 24 meeting.

The current $100.9 million proposed referendum includes a $23.5 million Central School decision, a $42 million option, $5 million in additional deferred maintenance, and $31.4 million in enhancements.

If a referendum is approved by the board, Ehler, a public finance municipal advisor, said last year that the estimated tax impact on a home with a $250,000 market value would be $5.92 per month or $71 a year for a $40 million option; $11 per month or $132 annually for a $75 million option; and $18.41 monthly or $221 a year for a $125 million referendum.

Sara Thompson, the school district’s director of communications and community relations, led off last week’s presentation on facilities updates with a recap of the seven-month planning process conducted by a 38-member Learning Design Team that represented a variety of St. Louis Park Public Schools stakeholders.

“Demographics are changing, and we need something for everyone to meet everyone’s needs,” Thompson said. “The exterior of our buildings doesn’t match what’s going on inside. We need to shine up our exteriors.”

The team, which Thompson said was challenged to determine how to deliver next-century education, ultimately listed 11 points concerning facilities updates:

• Learning for all ages
• Park Spanish Immersion School moves to Cedar Manor
• Additional middle school classroom space
• Auditorium at the middle school
• Weight room at the high school
• Central kitchen to prepare fresh, nutritious meals
• Exit date for Central Middle School
• District office moving out of the high school
• Committed space for Early Childhood
• Looking at the possibilities of owned properties
• Security, technology, HVAC and accessibility updates for all schools.

The Learning Design Team determined that “it’s time to invest in our school facilities so they match our academic offerings,” Thompson said. “People said we need to Go Bold.”

Judy Hoskins and Kathy Wallace, representing Cuningham Architects, reviewed the current recommendation for each of the district’s six school buildings, as well as district-wide facilities.

The district’s school principals each explained how passage of the proposed referendum would impact their students’ learning.
“This is a very exciting and overwhelming,” said Scott Meyers, principal at the high school. “This is a once-in-a-career opportunity.”
The high school has some “pretty important needs,” according to Meyers.

A proposed learning lab would be a place where students could learn collaboratively, he said. Remodeling the media center to create a Link and Learning Commons would offer a welcoming space for students, he said.

The weight and fitness center has not been updated for 13 years, and the locker rooms also need updates.

“We have high school boys begging for a salad bar,” Meyers said, adding that the ability to meet individual nutritional opportunities would enhance students’ spirits.

Les Bork, principal at the middle school, said that the building for more than two decades served 550-650 students. Its current enrollment is at 1,040 students, and it is projected to house 1,200 students in the future.

Adding 10 classrooms would create flexible learning spaces, Bork said.

“Flexibility is the key word in adapting to tomorrow’s technology and changing needs,” he said.

He predicted that work production would increase with the addition of central air conditioning. Additional space also is needed in the lunchroom, Bork said.

As for a proposed performing arts space, he said, “We’ve been waiting 25 years for this. All of our students are required to enroll in visual and performing arts. It would be a benefit to 100 percent of our students. It would increase the quality and quantity of our productions.”

The school’s library/media center was created in 1992, before the schools had Internet or email capabilities.

According to Bork, the middle school is “the lynchpin of success between the elementary and high school” levels.

“Middle school is the first time our entire student body comes together as a group,” Bork said. “It needs to be flexible and up to date. We used to be a small, boutique middle school. Now we’re one of the largest in the state.”

Added Bork, “I’m tremendously excited about this. Our students are ready.”

Shelley Nielsen, principal at Peter Hobart Elementary and a former St. Louis Park student, athlete and coach, agreed that “it’s time” to upgrade the district’s schools.

“Air conditioning will bring a dramatic change,” Nielsen said. “It will be a welcome relief for all.”

Having a central kitchen to prepare and deliver healthy meals to students in each building “will be critical and wholeheartedly embraced,” Nielsen said.

The proposed upgrades will be a win-win for the community, she said, because district buildings are used all the time.

“They’re a place to build community,” Nielsen said.

“The district has made great changes in the last five years,” Nielsen said. “Families will push us, and they should. These are great opportunities for our students.”

Clarence Pollock, principal at Aquila Elementary, said new furniture for all four elementary schools would bring standing desks and flexible seating.

“We need that furniture to allow students to brainstorm like they’re doing in the real world,” he said.

Corey Maslowski, principal at Park Spanish Immersion School, referred to his school’s dance and vocal performances in connection with the proposed upgrades.

“I can only imagine the wonderful opportunities our kids would have,” Maslowski said.

Community Education Director Lisa Greene said she envisions an entrance to her department that would be welcoming and right-sized for young children, and space in which her program could grow.

“Our staff is excited to work directly with the architects,” Greene said, adding that she is hoping “we can bring adult options back into the fold.”

Regarding Lenox, the site housing the district’s senior citizen program, plus preschool and adult enrichment classes, Greene said.

“Teachers didn’t want to teach there because of the poor technology. Paint was peeling in the classrooms, and the sinks weren’t so good.”

A performing arts center will benefit many, Greene said, adding that she receives “a lot of requests for use of the auditorium.”
“I can imagine how the community could use the high school Link and Learning Commons,” Greene said. “Air conditioning would be a huge benefit for summer and community users. If all the schools had air conditioning, we could move summer programs around.”

Kari Schwietering, assistant principal at the high school, said she is a St. Louis Park graduate whose sons now are district students. Her mother also is a St. Louis Park graduate and former district teacher.

“We are a Children First community,” Schwietering said. “Safety comes up all over the place.”

The district needs to have schools with safe entrances, and create buildings where students feel they belong and are engaged in learning, she said.

“We really need to look at the high school,” Schwietering said. “It needs to be the showcase of the amazing things we’re doing here. We will continue to do amazing things. I’m really excited about what we could be with these changes.”

Andy Ewald, the district’s athletic director, said the current 1,600-square-foot weight room was “an afterthought.”

“We don’t have space in the weight room to get everybody in the program,” Ewald said. “Kids are coming in at 6:30 a.m. More than 300 students have signed up, and we have more than 7,000 visitors annually. We have the potential to offer strength training as an elective.”