St. Louis Park weighing temporary, permanent school additions

Two years after shuttering Cedar Manor Intermediate School, the St. Louis Park School Board is weighing whether the district should build temporary or permanent school additions.

Temporary additions at elementary schools could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars while permanent additions of four classrooms would cost an estimated $3.2 million, according to Paul Aplikowski of Wold Architects and Engineers. He indicated the matter needs more study, though, and that he could not provide a full recommendation during a Nov. 26 School Board meeting.

After an extensive conversation with board members, Aplikowski said, “I think all of this requires further discussion before you make a decision on adding on. I’m sure it’s frustrating that I’m not up here telling you all the answers, but I think that’s part of the reason.”

In 2009, Aplikowski recommended the district close Cedar Manor as an elementary school and Eliot School as a community center to help the district handle its strained finances. The district implemented the changes along with a school reconfiguration plan in 2010. The district’s finances improved but parents have complained that elementary schools are too cramped.

“We spent quite a bit of time talking about right-sizing your district, and it seems today the elementaries don’t seem so right-sized,” Aplikowski said at the Nov. 26 School Board meeting.

Since Wold Architects and Engineers made its recommendations in 2009, district enrollment in kindergarten through fifth grade has increased by 180 students. Additionally, the district increased its all-day kindergarten offerings. The district now has six rooms dedicated to all-day kindergarten classes. Because a room can house two half-day kindergarten classes in a day but only one all-day kindergarten class, the shift resulted in reduced seating capacity of 174 seats, Aplikowski said.

“The two (changes) together give you a net change of 354 seats, plus or minus, which is a pretty significant shift from 2009, and that’s why I think your buildings feel very full now,” he said.

Aplikowski called the enrollment increase unforeseen, though Board Chair Jim Yarosh responded, “Well, I don’t know if it was unforeseen, but it was at the top end of what was foreseeable.”

Park Spanish Immersion School has some excess space, Aplikowski noted, but the room at the elementary school dedicated to Spanish immersion could not likely help cramped conditions in other elementary schools.

He suggested the district either create temporary additions and see what happens with enrollment levels in the future or build permanent additions. He estimated the cost of providing two temporary classrooms at $275,000. Much of the cost is due to building codes that require such facilities to contain foundations and weather-controlled links to the main section of the affected school. The infrastructure could not be reused for permanent additions, he noted.

Boardmember Nancy Gores asked whether the district could run into trouble with city approvals and neighbors if they seek to build temporary classrooms. She noted plans to redevelop Eliot School have stalled amid neighborhood opposition.

“I’m wondering how viable this is in practical, political terms,” Gores said.

Unlike the Eliot School redevelopment proposal, the St. Louis Park School District would not need to request zoning changes for school additions, Aplikowski said. Basic permits would be required instead. He said he has discussed the idea with city staff.

“They’ve indicated they want you to follow the building code and everything to get the permit, but we don’t foresee it being an impossibility with them,” he said.

He discussed possibilities for adding temporary classrooms at Aquila Elementary School and Peter Hobart Elementary School.

The $3.2 million estimated cost for four permanent classrooms arose out of an exploration Wold Architects conducted for Peter Hobart Elementary last year. The district instead decided to pursue small renovations in the school to better utilize space. However, parents have complained about Spanish students meeting on a stage, an adaptive physical education class meeting in a hallway and other problems.

If the district decided to go ahead with building four permanent classrooms, the district should probably not build them all at one school, Aplikowksi suggested.

“I would say that seems like it is about the right size of the solution, though you might not want to do it all at Peter Hobart,” he said. “You might want to spread it around because of enrollment at other buildings.

Boardmember Bruce Richardson said four additional classrooms might not be enough. Referring to Peter Hobart Elementary in particular, Richardson said, “It sounds like we can already fill up that space with the students we have in the school at this time…. This $3.2 million would just absorb what we already have in the school.”

Aplikowksi’s numbers indicate Peter Hobart Elementary is only nine students beyond capacity currently, but a number of parents “are suggesting something different,” Gores said.

“I’m not connecting those dots,” Gores said. “Can you help me with this?”

Aplikowksi replied, “No, I can’t exactly. I think that’s what requires some extra study. We’re not quite ready to make a recommendation on how much more space you need.”

The district may also have to reconsider programming choices that are contributing to space constraints, Gores said.

“I think we need to at least look at those,” Gores said. “We may decide to keep all those. We may decide, yep, all-day kindergarten in every school is not an option because it costs us a lot of money to add on.”

The board should proceed cautiously, Yarosh said.

“I think we recognize it’s a process and you don’t want to commit to a long-term solution at a cost if the numbers shake out different next year, for example, and you’re left in the middle of the project where maybe you don’t need space,” Yarosh said. “We want to approach this as carefully as possible with the best information, and we’re not there yet is what we’re hearing.”

According to projections by Director of Business Services Sandy Salin, a project of $3.45 million would have a tax impact of about $15 annually on the owner of a $250,000 home. She suggested refinancing a district bond at a lower interest rate could offset the additional tax impact on homeowners, though.

Enrollment comparison

Peter Hobart Elementary parents spoke during an open forum at the Nov. 26 meeting. The conditions at Peter Hobart Elementary at best pose inconveniences and at worst pose risks to students and staff should an emergency situation occur, said Plymouth resident Andraya Thompson, president of the Peter Hobart Elementary parent-teacher organization, during an open forum period at the Nov. 26 meeting.

Another parent read Minnesota administrative rules requiring essentially equivalent facilities for special education programs. She said she was shocked anyone would consider the use of a hallway for adaptive physical education class satisfactory for complying with state rules.

Salin’s enrollment figures indicate enrollment at Peter Hobart Elementary is actually down this fall compared to its enrollment during the last fall of Cedar Manor Intermediate School’s operation. Peter Hobart’s enrollment in October 2009 was 577 compared to 549 last October.

Meanwhile, enrollment at Aquila Elementary School increased from 461 in October 2009 to 521 last October. Enrollment at Susan Lindgren Elementary School increased from 373 to 533 during the same period.

Enrollment at Park Spanish Immersion School, which lost sixth grade during a school reconfiguration implementation, fell from 598 in October 2009 to 513 this fall.

The number of regular education class sections between October 2009 and this last October remained stable at Peter Hobart at 24 and raised slightly at Aquila Elementary from 20 to 22. Class sections at Susan Lindgren increased considerably, though, from 14 to 22. They fell at Park Spanish Immersion School from 24 to 21.