Edina Public Schools are ready to ask voters for nearly $125 million in new tax money to pay for facility upgrades, the district’s first request in more than a decade.
The school board is scheduled to vote Monday on whether to authorize a $124.9 million referendum, a plan that could mean a new high school addition, an activities center and renovations to all schools to create “flexible learning spaces.” If approved, the election would take place May 5.
Unlike many district taxing proposals around the state, Edina’s — for the most part — is not being driven by a need to accommodate an increase in student enrollment. Rather, the plan stems from schools leaders taking a hard look at the programs the district offered and coming up with a vision for the future. That vision calls for creating more personalized learning experiences and opportunities for students to learn anywhere, anytime.
The age of Edina’s schools — the newest of which was built in 1972 — often impedes that goal.
“We want programs to drive facilities,” said Susan Brott, the district’s communications director. “And I think traditionally, how we do programs has been dictated by the space we have. And we’re trying to flip that.”
Brott said officials spent the last couple of years trying to figure out what kind of learning experiences they want for students. The goal is to transform buildings that are 40-plus years old and designed for a different period and different curriculum, and to adapt them to the experience they want kids to have today and in the future.
The proposal before the board does not call for building new schools, though an addition is proposed at the high school to accommodate a plan to move ninth-grade students from the middle schools.
Instead, it calls for making widespread modifications to all Edina schools to create “flexible” learning spaces where students can work together in groups and teachers can switch seamlessly between working with students one-on-one to much larger groups.
School leaders envision spaces within schools that function a little bit more like a modern office, with movable furniture, common work spaces, space for large groups and areas where partitions could be easily erected or taken down.
“The plan is really about creating a learning experience rather than just going to school,” said Superintendent Ric Dressen. “Facilities need to become a place where students can experience learning. It has to be more than just a classroom.”
Last summer, a 24-person task force began crafting a facilities plan that is the basis of the proposal set to go to the school board next week.
The crux of the plan is the creation of flexible learning spaces in every building with an eye toward making sure those spaces can be used for decades to come.
“We wanted to look at models that move away from the traditional classroom setup where a teacher stands in front of the class and lectures,” said Dennis Bao, a senior at Edina High School who served on the task force. “Obviously the classroom of the future has a lot more technology so we have to keep that in mind.”
The plan also calls for improved security at each building, enhancements to each building’s media center, renovation of the first floor of the Edina Community Center into an early learning center, expansion of Project Lead the Way and science, technology, engineering and math learning labs at the high school.
It also calls for building a multipurpose activities center at the high school to accommodate physical education classes and provide meeting spaces for extracurricular groups and room for students to work on projects like robotics.
“I think there’s value in every piece of that, whether it’s providing room for PE classes of after-school activities,” said Dick Ward, a parent who served on the task force. “It’s especially needed when you look at how we’re discussing reconfiguring space at the high school.”
Moving freshmen to the high school will require the construction of an estimated 60,000-square-foot addition to be attached to the high school.
It is unclear where that addition would be built. It could be a challenge — the high school is near wetlands and a creek.
School leaders, however, are undeterred.
“We’re a pretty typical first-ring suburb and don’t have a lot of land available so we have to repurpose what we do,” said Dressen.
Worth starting over?
If the board authorizes the referendum, the owner of a typical $400,000 Edina home would see an annual tax increase of $324 a year should voters approve the request, according to preliminary cost estimates. If voters approve the referendum, construction would start in 2016.
A December survey showed that 61 percent of likely voters would support the referendum.
Brott said there will be many upcoming opportunities for community members to learn about the district’s facilities should the board authorize the referendum.
One of the questions she and other school officials have already fielded is whether it would be less expensive to build new schools rather than modify existing buildings.
School leaders say that, in general, most of the buildings are in good shape and are worth preserving.
Ward said he supports the district’s plan to work with what they have, rather than starting over.
“I think the district has done a good job of focusing on its programs and letting them drive this conversation,” he said.
“We all like new things, but in this case, I think this is the way to go.”