4 new Twin Cities schools will end an era

  • Article by: AIMÉE BLANCHETTE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 1, 2009 - 4:27 PM

Ribbon-cuttings Tuesday at four new Twin Cities high schools may be the last for a while.

Four new high schools open their doors Tuesday, a bounty crop the Twin Cities metro area hasn't seen in at least 20 years and likely won't again for some time. ¶ The economic crisis has put a halt to districts' plans for new facilities. Instead, the emphasis is shifting to upkeep and repair, and making sure there are enough funds to operate existing buildings, school officials say.

This year's new high schools -- in Chanhassen, Farmington, St. Michael-Albertville and Woodbury -- are all in outer-ring suburbs and were planned in the midst of a robust economy. New homes were being built at record levels, so new schools were needed to accommodate the growth.

Today, however, many districts are finding new students and fresh money harder to come by. The bust in the housing market means that previously booming districts have seen the flood of new families and taxpayers slow to a trickle. Educators also realize that voters who have watched incomes slip and jobs vanish are loath to raise their tax bills.

"When these schools were being planned four or five years ago, nobody foresaw what's happened to the economy," said Tim Dufault, president of Cuningham Group Architecture of Minneapolis. Dufault, who also chairs the American Institute of Architects Committee on Architecture for Education, closely follows local and national school construction trends. "It will be a while before we see something of the scale that we're seeing this fall," he said.

The number of districts seeking bond and capital funds from taxpayers this fall is well below years past. Only nine districts statewide are asking voters to approve funds for construction and building-improvement projects, the lowest number in 20 years, according to the Minnesota School Board Association. And only two districts -- St. Louis County (Duluth) and Annandale -- plan to ask for money to build new schools.

"I'm definitely happy we got this [school] built when we did," said Dale Carlson, principal of the new St. Michael-Albertville High. "The financial climate has changed so much since we did this. Passing a referendum now ... it would definitely be a closer vote."

Growth slows, need remains

The St. Michael-Albertville area and some other outer-ring suburbs flourished in recent years as housing growth boomed, but they have been hard hit by the housing market bust. While population growth generally continues in these suburbs, it's slowing or leveling off, and many districts won't need new facilities as soon as they once had expected.

The Eastern Carver County School District is opening a $93 million high school in Chanhassen this year to relieve stress on nearby Chaska High. All the district's seniors will stay at Chaska High this year, but next year, Chaska's enrollment will be cut by 500 students from a onetime high of 1,900.

The district had planned to build a new elementary school, too, said Superintendent David Jennings, "but the slowdown in growth of enrollment has postponed that need for at least two or three more years."

In other districts the need remains, but money will be hard to come by.

The Delano School District twice failed in referendums to get approval for $27 million in bonds to build another elementary school. Even though every building in the district is over capacity and the problem is expected to worsen, the district has decided not to put the question to voters again this fall. Superintendent John Sweet said, "Someday the situation will need to be addressed."

Statewide, districts will need more facilities to accommodate a growing population. K-12 enrollment is projected to increase 7 percent over the next decade, according to the State Demographic Center.

Each elementary school building in St. Francis, north of the Twin Cities, is overcrowded by 60 to 100 students more than they were built to accommodate.

But the community three times voted down a bond referendum for a new elementary school. The district has no plans to ask again anytime soon.

Eventually, more students will find themselves in larger classes, in "portable" classrooms next to their schools or in leased church space down the road, said Greg Abbott, communications director for the Minnesota School Board Association.

The largest district in the state, Anoka-Hennepin, has about 60 portable classrooms at its high schools to deal with overcrowding. But the elementary and middle schools have excess capacity, so the district plans to close some of those schools next year.

For some districts, the need is not to accommodate growing enrollment, but to maintain buildings that are falling into disrepair. The average age of the state's schools is 32 years.

Two elementary schools in Robbinsdale are in need of repair, but it would cost nearly as much to renovate them as it would to build new schools.

Even with aging and inefficient buildings, many districts say it's the wrong time to ask for a tax increase for facilities. Schools won't get their usual 2 percent increases in state aid this year, so more districts will turn to operating levies to make up the difference.

Bond money pays to build schools, but districts must find the money in their operations budgets to run them.

"If we ask voters to approve new buildings, it might make it difficult to seek an extension of our operating levy," said Jeff Dehler, a spokesman for the Robbinsdale district.

Redtail Ridge Elementary in Savage faced a public relations nightmare last fall, when a failed operating levy left the newly built school's doors shuttered for a year.

School districts that focused on repairs and improvements are finding a glimmer of good news in the bad economy -- it's a good time to build. More construction firms are looking for work, and with competition comes lower bids.

Those districts are helping fill the gap for Rego and Youngquist, the architecture firm that designed St. Michael-Albertville and East Ridge High Schools.

"There are a lot of old buildings in this state that need to be replaced," Paul Youngquist said. "There might be a couple-year gap in new school construction, but housing will pick up, the economy will improve and a year from now we'll wonder why we felt so gloomy about things."

Aimée Blanchette • 612-673-1715

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