What began last fall as a desire to transform a suburban community center into a special-education center is growing into a broader facilities and programming makeover for the North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale School District.
The district is moving ahead with a proposal to keep secondary students with emotional behavior disorder in the district instead of paying for services elsewhere — a move that is expected to save $1.2 million in tuition costs annually.
Initially, the district, which serves students in Washington and Ramsey counties, had envisioned placing the students in a renovated North St. Paul Community Center.
But that deal collapsed, and now the district plans to use the tuition savings for multiple projects that could, among other things, include expanded early childhood education services.
“We took a step back and looked at a broader range of our programs,” district spokeswoman Jennifer McNeil said last week. “Everything just kind of fit together very nicely.”
The district’s plans still call for changes in where some special education services are delivered. One such move involves a more limited use of space — compared with what had been initially proposed — in the North St. Paul Community Center building.
Workers there are creating classrooms for the district’s 11th- and 12th-grade alternative learning program, now housed at the Harmony Learning Center in Maplewood. Harmony, in turn, will be used to educate the secondary students currently being sent outside the district for special programming. Also at Harmony will be elementary students with similar emotional behavior disorder issues.
Karon Joyer, district director of special services, said last fall that keeping students nearer to home not only will save money but also make them less likely to drop out, thereby improving graduation rates.
Harmony, as a former elementary school, also has a gymnasium and other features that can help elementary students in the transition back to regular classrooms, McNeil said. Elementary students in need of special programming now go to Gladstone Community Center.
Dale Sundstrom, the district’s business services director, said last week that none of the renovation costs at Harmony or the North St. Paul Community Center would require voter approval. But he said the district will need to have the State Department of Education sign off on improvements to the Beaver Lake Education Center, projected to be the new home for all of the district’s preschool programs.
According to a school board presentation in February, the district plans to use some of its special-education savings to finance the remodeling of the North St. Paul Community Center and the demolition this summer of an old elementary school building at the Beaver Lake site. Work there will continue into the 2015-16 school year.
McNeil said that it’s hoped that the district can make space for a Head Start program at Beaver Lake Education Center.
“This has turned into a win-win for everyone,” she said.