A new year was approaching and the children were singing, voices of harmony in a St. Paul school that has become a source of tension within the neighborhood.
At Linwood Monroe Arts Plus Lower Campus, teachers use music, drama, dance and the visual arts to educate kids. On a recent Wednesday, four students — each a recent immigrant — learned English by singing about “Mr. Snowman” and the eyes, carrot and blue scarf they colored in for him.
They sat at a table in the hallway, however, rather than a classroom — “A challenging spot in which to teach, that’s for sure,” said Al Levin, the school’s assistant principal.
Plans have been drawn up for new instructional spaces, and other improvements, at the kindergarten through third-grade building in the Summit Hill neighborhood. But the size of a proposed three-story addition, and the potential shrinking of green space, has divided neighbors.
And the project’s estimated cost has risen from $15 million to $21 million as the district makes adjustments in hopes of winning over opponents. The dispute may have to be resolved by the St. Paul City Council — an unusual step for a school project.
If there is hope for a resolution that does not cause long-standing rifts, it rests in the fact that both sides agree Linwood school needs remodeling.
Most of its classrooms, undersized by state standards, have gone untouched structurally since the building was constructed in 1922, Principal Bryan Bass said.
As he stepped out of his office on a recent tour, Bass pointed to a restroom door across the hall, with a lip on the lower edge not unlike a street curb. “If you’re in a wheelchair, whoops!” he said.
There are no ramps to the stage in a large room that serves as cafeteria, gymnasium and performing arts space. Just before noon, students ate sloppy Joes on whole grain buns, while on the other side of a partition children who are cognitively and developmentally delayed were engaged in an adaptive phy-ed activity.
Bass said staff members have been creative with the spaces within which they must work. But the students deserve better, he said.
“There is nothing greedy in this plan,” Bass said of the project. “These are very modest upgrades to what state guidelines suggest.”
Linwood Monroe is a two-campus operation, with grades K-3 in Summit Hill and a grade 4-8 campus in the city’s West End neighborhood. Both campuses would be improved under the districtwide Facilities Master Plan, expected to include more than $200 million in projects during the first two years alone.
Earlier this year, the district surprised neighbors by proposing the Linwood addition on a compact site that is less than a city block in size — along with a programming upgrade that would move fourth-grade and preschool students there from the Monroe building.
John Gehan, 67, a neighbor whose family has been a presence in the Summit Hill area through seven generations, and who opposes the project as currently designed, said that he agrees “those kids deserve a good school, a good facility, that’s warm in the winter with right-sized classrooms. ... What we are saying is there is a limit to what you can do on a very small site.”
Jeffrey Raich, 48, who is new to the neighborhood and unlike the majority of opponents sends his kids to Linwood Monroe, said he sees an affluent community standing in the way of ensuring the school’s low-income students and students of color have access to a fair and equal education.
The Summit Hill Association has opposed the variances needed for the project, while the St. Paul Federation of Teachers and St. Paul chapter of the NAACP have endorsed the proposal.
The approval process also is complicated by the building’s location within the Historic Hill District. Discussions involving an environmental assessment work sheet for the project continue.
But Tom Parent, the district’s facilities director, is hopeful that the proposal will be before the city’s Board of Zoning Appeals in January.
At Linwood school, the principal and staff members are happy to show people around to see the building’s limitations.
“What we are doing is for our kids, and it’s big,” said Betsy Wright, a visual arts teacher, stopping to tell a visitor. “We are working for our future.”