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DL residents: Leave elementary schools where they are

Tom Trowbridge of Detroit Lakes voiced his opinion that the school district should look at other options rather than build a new elementary school north of town during a listening meeting at Rossman Elementary School Tuesday night. DL NEWSPAPERS/Brian Basham

A variety of new ideas for solving the Detroit Lakes school district’s space issues were brought forth as a result of the two latest public “listening sessions” held at Rossman Elementary School this week.

“These sessions have been very helpful,” said Detroit Lakes School Board Chair Ladd Lyngaas following the Tuesday night meeting, which was attended by between 30-40 people.

A similar session held on Saturday morning, while not quite as well attended, provided some valuable insights as well, noted DL Schools Superintendent Doug Froke.

As was pointed out by board member Dr. Tom Seaworth early in the discussion, the district is essentially starting from scratch in searching for solutions to its overcrowding issues at the elementary school sites.

“Everything is back on the table now,” he said.

A top priority, however, as defined by parents in the district, is to find a way to put all of its fifth grade students back into an elementary school setting. Currently, about half of all the district’s fifth graders are attending classes at the middle school.

“We need to get them back into an elementary setting,” Lyngaas said.

One intriguing suggestion that emerged from the discussions was the idea that the district should consider a new high school, or middle school, on the outskirts of town instead of an elementary school in the same location.

A clear theme of all three listening sessions that have been held since the failure of a $59 million school construction bond referendum in November, Froke said, has been that the community would prefer to keep its two elementary buildings where they are, as “neighborhood schools” in residential areas —particularly the Rossman facility.

“People have a real fondness for Rossman (school),” Froke said. “They like the neighborhood school concept.”

Audience member Tom Trowbridge pointed out at Tuesday night’s meeting that he felt expansion at the Rossman site had been abandoned too quickly when the school board was looking at options for solving its space needs.

However, there are several obstacles the board would face with such a proposal.

One problem lies in the fact that the Rossman building is aging; the original facility was built in 1951, with additions in 1965, 1987 (relocatable, or “portable” classrooms) and 1996.

Another lies in the fact that there are really only two possibilities for expansion at the Rossman site: building up, or building out. As pointed out by Stephen Plantenberg of R.A. Morton & Associates, building additional stories onto the current Rossman building would not be a structurally sound option.

Meanwhile, because the site is located in a residential area, acquisition of sufficient property adjacent to the Rossman school to enable such an expansion could cost several million dollars, or involve eminent domain (i.e., forced purchase) proceedings.

Board member Dr. Tom Seaworth said that the district simply doesn’t have the money, or the time, to gradually acquire the properties as they come up for sale naturally — and just one property owner refusing to sell could force eminent domain proceedings anyway.

And as Lyngaas added, if the Rossman site were to be expanded, the plans would have to include additional gymnasium space as well as more classrooms.

Another possibility suggested at Tuesday night’s listening session was the idea that, if building a new school is necessary, a high school could be built on the edge of town, then the middle school could be moved to the current high school site and Roosevelt Elementary, currently adjacent to the middle school, could be expanded into the middle school space. (Building a middle school on the same site was also mentioned.)

As a couple of audience members pointed out, one of the chief problems voters seemed to have with the proposed new school was that the district’s youngest (i.e., most vulnerable) students would have to be bused out to the site, which was adjacent to the city’s industrial park on the north side of Detroit Lakes.

Speaking at Tuesday night’s meeting, local resident Tom Frank had another proposal: Using the Lincoln Education Center site to build a new, four-story elementary school.

That property was once the site of one of the district’s elementary schools, Frank pointed out, and while the oldest part of that original school was torn down many years ago, the district does still own the property.

And much like the Rossman school, the property is also located in a residential area.

“We (i.e., he and his wife) are real proponents of the neighborhood school,” Frank said, noting that he would have a problem with a new high school being built in the industrial park area of the city as well.

As Plantenberg noted after Frank put forth his idea for the Lincoln site, all school construction plans have to pass muster with the Minnesota Department of Education, which has some “pretty strict criteria” for putting its stamp of approval on a project.

Following Tuesday’s discussion, which lasted about 90 minutes, Lyngaas said the board’s next step would be to hold a work session later this month, at which all the input from the listening sessions would be reviewed and some decisions would be made on how to proceed.

Follow Detroit Lakes Newspapers reporter Vicki Gerdes on at @VickiLGerdes.

Vicki Gerdes

Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 16 years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as covering city council and the Lake Park-Audubon School Board. Living in DL with my cat, Smokey.

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