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School Board finalizes big facilities proposal

Liberty Ridge Elementary School staff member Nicole Felipe shares concerns with the District 833 School Board about plans to move the district’s autism program from Liberty Ridge to Royal Oaks Elementary. She and parents said the transition will be difficult on autistic students, who struggle with change and have grown accustomed to the Liberty Ridge school community. (Bulletin photo by Scott Wente)

The big plan is moving forward.

School Washington County School Board members unanimously backed a complex long-range facilities plan that calls for construction of a new middle school, renovations and additions at other schools, program moves and some attendance boundary changes.

The facilities plan is estimated at nearly $180 million, but administrators cautioned that the recent decision to delay a planned bond referendum from spring 2015 to November 2015 will add an estimated 8 percent to building construction costs.

School Board members approved the plan Nov. 20 after listening to emotional pleas from parents concerned with various elements, including the effects of East Ridge High School boundary changes, the relocation of an elementary autism program and the district’s planned purchase of  Valley Crossing Community School.

Facility and boundary changes have never been easy, board member Tracy Brunnette said. Making a change at one school can affect someone else at another school.

“It’s just a vicious cycle, unfortunately,” Brunnette said, adding: “I honestly believe this is a good plan for us going forward.”

The plan’s major components are:

--- Construction of a new Oltman Middle School in Cottage Grove and the subsequent move of the district’s Nuevas Fronteras Spanish immersion elementary school to the existing Oltman building in St. Paul Park

--- Additions to Woodbury, Park and East Ridge high schools so each can accommodate 2,300 students

--- Construction of a building link between Woodbury Elementary and Woodbury Middle schools

--- Relocation of the autism program from Liberty Ridge Elementary to Royal Oaks Elementary

--- Shift the Gateway program for gifted students from Bailey Elementary to Woodbury Elementary

--- Move the middle school Spanish immersion program from Cottage Grove Middle to Woodbury Middle

The plan will include some boundary changes at all three grade levels. Next steps for the district include beginning to work on new high school attendance boundary proposals in advance of a decision by next spring, said Mike Vogel, assistant to the superintendent for operations.

The facilities plan is meant to address anticipated enrollment growth and existing classroom space constraints in East Ridge and Cottage Grove. Enrollment growth predicted to occur within the district over the next decade is concentrated within the existing East Ridge High School attendance boundary. To address that, the district would shift some students to Woodbury High School, and Cottage Grove families who are in the East Ridge attendance boundary would move to Park.

A four-year, phased-in boundary change would be put in place, but some parents expressed concern about seeing their kids moved from East Ridge. Other parents said the proposal includes the potential for some families to simultaneously have children at two high schools.

Karyn Dulka, of Cottage Grove, told the School Board that under the proposal her son is at East Ridge and her daughter would be slated to attend Park High School by the time she reached high school.

“That would not be good for a family to be at two rival high schools at the same time,” Dulka said.

School Board members said they intend to consider a “grandfathering clause” when exploring new high school attendance boundaries to prevent families getting split between two high schools.

The autism program changes and planned acquisition of Valley Crossing also generated parent concerns at a public hearing before last week’s vote.

Parents of children in the autism program at Liberty Ridge said moving the program and staff to Royal Oaks will pose significant challenges for their children. Autistic children do better in a familiar setting with a known routine, and moving schools will be a major change that could affect their educational development, parents said.

There are roughly 24 kids in the program, which uses the equivalent of three classrooms at Liberty Ridge. Moving the autism program is meant to help alleviate overcrowding at Liberty Ridge.

Jennifer Brookins-King, a parent of a student with autism, said the program is not broken. She said the program is part of the Liberty Ridge Community.

“Why should a small minority of students — 24 as of now — be sacrificed for the majority?” Brookins-King asked.

Valley Crossing parents pleaded with board members to allow their school to remain as a choice program, with its multi-grade open classroom format and individualized instruction. They said it is a good alternative for families and has demonstrated educational success.

“Please, I implore you, keep Valley Crossing a choice program,” parent Mary Yapp said. “It is working; the numbers prove it.”

District 833 intends to try to purchase Valley Crossing from its other two member districts — Stillwater and North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale — and use it for both an attendance boundary school and the existing choice program.

The facilities plan is a hybrid of two prior proposals developed by a district-community task force and vetted through public meetings and an online survey.

Scott Wente

Scott Wente has been editor at the South Washington County Bulletin since 2011. He worked as a reporter at other Forum Communications newspapers from 2003 to 2011.

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