New high school fulfills years of planning

Aug 28, 2017

Years ago, a city comprehensive plan had circled an area on Broadway Avenue west of the city for a future school.

“We had no idea it was even up for sale,” former District 508 Superintendent Jeff Olson said. “Then boom, boom, boom.”

That’s where the new St. Peter High School sits. How the district got there really started with a 2005 school facility maintenance plan. District officials knew then that the elementary schools would get very crowded. But they wanted to be sure it wasn’t just a blip.

In 2012, an enrollment study showed 1 to 2 percent increase in enrollment each year for 10 years.

“We knew Mankato was growing and that Cambria was building an addition and the Walmart distribution center was coming,” Olson said.

A confirmed need

Two population studies showed slow and steady growth for St. Peter. 2010 census data showed that young adults were the fastest-growing segment in the city.

“It started to dawn on us that we had to do something,” Mark Karlsrud, school board chairman, said.

A facilities task force that included community stakeholders started working on options at the end of 2012 and through the winter and spring of 2013. The stakeholders looked at adequacy and capacity needs. For example, adequacy demands required more special education space.

The most obvious need was space for elementary students. At first, people focused on an elementary school.

“We worked through it and saw that would give us about five years before we would be faced with the same thing,” Karlsrud said.

At the end, they saw that the high school would be the best answer.

“That would buy us the largest growth time by allowing the repurposing of other buildings,” Karlsrud said.

The core of the building — bathrooms, cafeteria, lockers, infrastructure — is large enough for 1,000 students. The academic wing’s 24 classrooms are enough for 850 students. But that wing was built to allow additions. Each floor has a wing for English language arts and social sciences and a wing for science and math. The lower floor is for ninth and 10th grade generally; the upper for 11th and 12th. The academic wing can be secured after school hours while other sections of the building remain open for sporting events, performances or adult education.

“It needed to be a community-centered school, a place for the community,” Olson said. “It can be a site for workforce development, culinary arts, theater.”

The most discussed need had been a theater. The theater in the new high school has 750 seats, far more than the middle school’s 300.

From the fields outside to the theater and gym inside, community interest in use has been high.

“I’ve already been contacted by outside groups and events to come in and use it,” Activities Director Steve Alger said. “It’s everything from basketball games to ballet.”

In 2011, the competitive diving board at the Middle School/High School pool broke. And the city and school district were discussing recreational and fine arts needs, primarily a theater.

A design created

Through the summer, district leaders worked with architects at Paulsen Architects, now part of ISG, Mankato, on possibilities. Their work included a study of the current buildings to see exactly what needed improvements and to get an idea of the cost.

Karlsrud said the school board gave administrators and designers some basic instructions.

“In my opinion, we said, ‘You don’t know what the future of education is going to be so don’t build something that will be outdated in five years.”

He said they called for a big capacity for technology and rooms that would be easily adapted to a multitude of uses.

“With those limited restrictions, we allowed the designers and architects to come together and say, ‘No boundaries,’ and they provided us with a series of ideas that made it easy to go, ‘That.’”

Greg Borchert, formerly with ISG, said the design of the school had to be flexible.

“It’s amazing how technology has advanced.”

Olson agreed. In 2008 and 2009, one of the district’s goals was to get smart boards in every classroom. They’re all gone now because they’re obsolete.

That led to the concept with the resource rooms, central space in wings of classrooms.

“It is a unique thing to have this flexible learning area instead of corridor or circulation space,” he said. “Early on, we separated it off from the main corridor and it’s separate from the teacher space, so it does feel like an additional classroom.”

With the windows between the resource room and the classrooms, the main goal was to “put learning on display.”

Teachers have one area for offices; they do not each have a classroom.

“One of the big challenges we are going to have is that that building will fundamentally change behaviors and relationships,” Karlsrud said. “Young people incapable of managing themselves are going to struggle.”

The school will allow mature students to flourish, he said, by having implied supervision. For example, students may be allowed open study hall and choose where they spend that time.

“There will still be guided or structured study hall with a teacher,” High School Principal Annette Engeldinger said. “But those with open study hall can choose spaces like the resource rooms, cafe and commons, media center. They can self-select where to be.”

Eventually, they’ll have some kind of fob-swiping system. For now, students will sign in for attendance. There will be some kind of limit on how many can be in spots like the resource rooms, she said. She said she thinks the freedom will serve as a motivator for many who are in structured study hall.

“I love middle schoolers, but high school should feel really different,” she said.

And it will, partly because of the separation from the seventh- and eighth-graders. The open study hall is a product of that separation and will foster the high schoolers’ independence, Engeldinger said.

There is a specter that high schoolers will be more distracted in the new environment or won’t study during open study hall. But Engeldinger said independent life skills are important for a high school student to develop before he or she graduates.

A deliberate process

Construction management firm Kraus-Anderson was brought in around September 2013.

“You had good information on the existing facilities,” said Gary Benson, director of project planning and development at Kraus-Anderson. “The most compelling thing was the enrollment trajectory.”

In fact, St. Peter was far more prepared than most when Kraus-Anderson joined the project.

Superintendent Paul Peterson said Kraus-Anderson suggested a demographic study, a comprehensive facilities study and other background work, all of which had been completed.

“I remember (Gary Benson) saying, ‘Let’s go!’ and we still had a year and a half until the vote,” Peterson said.

Benson said, “I would say St. Peter was very deliberate and thoughtful.”

Olson said he encouraged the School Board to be intentional and communicative. “I said, ‘How many times do you want to do it?’”

They figured a general cost of $55 million for the project. The district’s issues included crowding at all schools, early education at different sites, an odd divide in grades between North Intermediate School and the Middle School/High School.

“Building a high school would address all of these issues,” Olson said.

The plan formulated built a high school for grades nine and up, create a middle school for fifth through eighth grades and move second from South Elementary School to North Intermediate School.

That should address space needs through 2030, Olson said. The high school was designed to allow the addition of new classrooms to accommodate up to 1,000 students, or 250 per class.

More improvements were identified than could be afforded. There were some pieces, like what to do with the Minnesota Valley Education District building — that weren’t immediately clear.

“There was talk about possibly vacating MVED,” Peterson said. In that case, the architects found the building, originally used for mechanical education, to be in better shape than expected.

The high school had to be 185,000 square feet. The pool’s diving section had to be deepened.

“There were some things we couldn’t leave out,” Olson said. “We had to get out of some lease space,” which meant moving Early Childhood and Family Education out of the St. Peter Community Center.

A survey in 2014 of likely voters asked what work they would support and how much they would be willing to pay.

“It gave us fog lines,” Olson said. And it happened to line up with the rough price tag.

Taxpayer support for the project came in at about 57 percent. Karlsrud said it was important not to ask for much more than that survey figure to maintain the community’s trust in the district.

“The number we got was the number we asked for and it passed,” he said.

A decision point

In spring 2014, the district began negotiations to buy 60 acres known as the Hermel farm. It sat north of 70 acres the city had bought, which was known as the Lambert farm.

“There had been consistent meetings with the school and city and the idea was ‘Wouldn’t it be good if we could partner on a parks and recreational facility?’” Olson said. The school district sought the Hermel land because “we probably do need more land to make it a comprehensive thing.”

Benson said it’s rare, but “wonderful” to see school districts and cities working together.

“It’s easier to see leaders being efficient with your tax dollars,” he said.

That was the third year in a row that the district had bought property on the city’s western edge. In 2012 and 2013, the district purchased a total of 93 acres that made up the Loomis/Pell property at Traverse Road and Nicollet Avenue.

Karlsrud said he and Olson drove out there.

“I said, ‘This is the right sized piece. We may never need it, but it’s available now. We have money in the bank. We’ve gotta buy it,’” Karlsrud said.

He said the district sensed support from the area’s farmers, because bidding for the land stopped at a price $2,000 less per acre than every other parcel available.

Karlsrud said that buying property has served the district well in the past. The previous purchase had been to construct South Elementary School, but the parcel extended up past Jefferson Park and Scholarship America. The district developed the four softball fields in 1975, then transferred the park to the city in 1989. The city bought land from the district for Nicollet Meadows. As a result of that, the school district could use Jefferson Fields for softball games and Veterans Field for baseball games, Karlsrud said.

“Buying land has never been a bad idea,” he said.

In this case, the district has sold about 60 acres to the city, which is now Traverse Green subdivision.

Karlsrud credited the work of earlier boards to make the Loomis/Pell and Hermel property purchases possible. They grew a fund balance, he said, and stabilized the district financially.

Robert Lambert, who was on the board from 2006 to 2012, said the financial security of the district was a major concern for him when he joined the board.

“It seemed like each year, the district was operating on a thin margin and was always thinking they may have to make cuts,” he said.

Although the need for a cushion had been talked about before, the board didn’t make the tax increases necessary to create it until that board began working. Lambert said they didn’t just save for a school project, but for running the new school.

“When you add a new building, you’re going to have additional cost,” he said. “They’re well-positioned now to handle those costs. They have thought about it for three or four years before opening this building.”

The district also had in-depth discussions with user groups in 2014 on how the building would work. Staff questionnaires had asked for the virtues and constraints of their current buildings and other feedback.

When the district showed a plan in February 2014, it sat at $54.9 million. But community members said more work needed to be done at South Elementary School to improve air quality and traffic circulation, among other items.

Peterson said the district tried to be responsive to district voters’ highest priorities. Increasing the work at South was a prime example.

All along the project track, the district sought input from community members.

“Without it, you can go faster,” Karlsrud said. “And you may get 90 percent there. But with it, you get a much better product.”

Peterson said the district hosted community engagement groups in 2014 where the discussions focused on what learning should look like in a new building.

“That helped with vision and demonstrated that we saw this as a community project and a community school,” he said.

Borchert said, “Of all the projects, there was tenfold community involvement here than the other ones I’ve worked on.”

That culminated when the school board set the scope for the March 2015 referendum vote the December prior. The district finalized that the high school would go on the County Road 5 or Broadway Avenue site and that the district and city would swap landownership, so the school could be close to the road.

“The board could confidently go to the public and say, ‘For this tax amount, the building concerns of the school district will be addressed,’” Peterson said.

From there, they held neighborhood meetings and shared information across the district about exactly what was in the new high school and what would be done to the other buildings.

Olson said, “If you’re going to ask the taxpayers for that kind of money, they needed to know what they’re buying.”

Former board member Lambert said some argued that Mankato’s growth would not extend to St. Peter, which he called “putting your head in the sand.” He said 2015 represented a great opportunity for the district to build.

“We needed more space and we were in position that interest rates were as low as they’ve been in years and years,” Lambert said. “Construction costs don’t go down, so it was never going to be cheaper than what it is right now. We knew that if we didn’t do it within a couple of years, we would be forced to put classrooms in trailer houses and once you’re in that commitment, it takes years and years to get out of those things.”

A school built

The referendum for a $58.6 million bond did pass on a 57-43 percent vote by a record-breaking number of voters in St. Peter.

The school district held a groundbreaking ceremony on Oct. 15, 2015. Site work took up that first fall and winter, with construction really rolling in spring 2016. Work continued apace and the final flurry of activity this summer extended to the other buildings as their renovations happened.

The construction and renovation project itself has had very few surprises.

Karlsrud said the community is fiscally conservative and the building represents that process.

“We wanted something modest in appearance and non-traditional,” he said. “In the end, we have that shining beacon on the hill.”

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