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Older school buildings becoming a liability

  • Article by: Norman Draper
  • Star Tribune
  • October 25, 2007 - 8:44 AM

Cracked and crumbling bathroom tiles. Hallways so narrow they turn class change into teenage rush hour. A cafeteria so small that the first lunch shift has to start at 10:22 a.m.

Big maintenance problems and aging buildings are plaguing the tiny St. Anthony-New Brighton school district, which has made a name for itself because of its small school sizes and attractiveness to students from other school districts. Hundreds of students from neighboring districts -- almost half the district's 1,700-student population -- use the state's open enrollment law to attend school in St. Anthony-New Brighton. Another 200 are on a waiting list to get in.

But school officials are worried that the district's sterling reputation as a big-city school district with a small-community feel will be tarnished by buildings and facilities dating to the '60s and long overdue for repair and renovation. Officials fear the distinctly old-school look could drive away students, which would siphon off the state education funding that allows the district to keep class sizes small.

"It just doesn't look or feel right," said Superintendent Rod Thompson about his graying schools. "It isn't the kind of thing we want to represent the district. ... We have to be able to compete with our neighbors or students are not going to want to come here anymore."

Thompson said elementary and middle school class sizes average 27 to 28 students, while a core-subject high school class ranges from 25 to 30.

If the district loses its appeal to outsiders, it could be in trouble.

"We couldn't survive if we didn't have open enrollment students," said Jane Eckert, vice chairwoman of the school board.

A citizens committee recently submitted a list of proposed improvements to district buildings and grounds. Those include relocating the computer labs in the secondary school building that houses St. Anthony Middle School and St. Anthony Village High School, reconfiguring the high school to provide more space for the gym and band activities, providing more parking spaces and widening the stairways in the secondary school building, and updating science labs. Other proposals include replacing the "bad tasting" water fountains and improving ventilation at Wilshire Park Elementary School.

There are safety concerns as well. At the middle school, Thompson said, the student drop-off and pickup site, which might have been quiet enough decades ago, now adjoins a busy street. The proposal is to change that site to a location that's less congested.

Thompson said the proposed improvements, which were laid before the school board last week, would cost $15 million to $35 million. The job of the board now is to figure out which of the improvements district residents want to pay for and how much the district would ask for in the necessary bond referendum, which could be held next spring.

"We will discuss over the next six to eight weeks what kinds of maintenance projects the voters will accept," Eckert said. "It would be wonderful to say that we will do everything on the list, but the economy is tough, and a very large portion of our population is senior citizens." What that means is many St. Anthony-New Brighton residents no longer have children in the schools and are on fixed incomes, making them potentially more leery about any tax increases proposed by the school district.

Norman Draper • 612-673-4547

Norman Draper • ndraper@startribune.com

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