To make room for more students, Detroit Lakes might build a high school in an unlikely place — on a college campus.
School district officials announced in December that they are exploring the possibility of putting a new high school at the Minnesota State Community and Technical College campus. They're touting the option — still in its infancy — as an innovative way to address overcrowding, give students a seamless education and save money by sharing facilities.
"The idea that two branches of government can work together on state-owned property … to solve issues for both parties is pretty interesting," said Superintendent Doug Froke. "Can we make that work?"
The district counts 2,933 students — a number it expects to grow. Already, three of the district's four buildings are over capacity, Froke said. Photos show cramped classrooms and crowded hallways.
In 2013, voters rejected a $59 million school bond request that would have paid for a new elementary school. Since then, the district has been holding meetings with the public to figure out how to resolve the overcrowding, Froke said.
Until now, the options were expected: Renovate all buildings. Build a new middle or high school on school property just north of town. Add on to the existing high school.
But at an open meeting in December, Froke announced the new idea, also supported by the president of M-State, as it's known, which has campuses in Detroit Lakes, Fergus Falls, Moorhead and Wadena.
Enrollment at those campuses has declined as the job market has improved in recent years, according to data from the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system.
"We have space in our building and the high school needs some space," said M State President Peggy Kennedy. "So if we can combine those two needs to do something for the community and our students, then we're happy to do that."
Vern Schnathorst, coordinator of the district's school-to-work program, thinks being on a community college campus would give students more exposure to what they may want to do in the future. That's pretty much the point of his program, which matches students with professionals, such as dentists or electricians.
"Some of those kids, they're very skilled kids … but sometimes if they don't have access or exposure to something, they have trouble finding it," he said. Partnering with M State could introduce them to various careers.
But, officials caution, that's getting ahead of things. Programming is still undecided. Other questions include: How much would this cost? Who would own the land? Might the state help pay for a new building or addition?
One obstacle: Soccer coaches are concerned. That's because the acreage beside the M State buildings is now a soccer complex, leased for 25 years by the Detroit Lakes Youth Soccer Association. With donations and volunteers, the association has leveled, irrigated, lit and fenced the fields, as well as built a concession stand.
"We estimate that we have a $3.5 million soccer complex," said David Carter, a coach and board member. The board has not yet discussed or voted on the school district's proposal, he said. "I assume that, like me, they would prefer that we could keep the site, as we all have blood, sweat and tears invested."
Another obstacle: the mix of ages. Froke said district leaders are weighing the age difference between a high school freshman and a second-year college student. Perhaps the school could completely separate the youngest students from the oldest, he said.
"We want to make sure people feel we're addressing that situation," Froke said. But the soccer fields and the ages are "the only two issues," he added. "We hope we can address both."