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$12 million expansion project proposed for Berthold School

All 41 people who attended a special board meeting of the Lewis & Clark School District in Berthold Thursday night got a good, hard look at the crowding issues in the Berthold Public School.

11/09/11 (Wed)

Click here to see the proposed master plan for Berthold School.

 

 By Caroline Downs

 
All 41 people who attended a special board meeting of the Lewis & Clark School District in Berthold Thursday night got a good, hard look at the crowding issues in the Berthold Public School.
 
With 276 students in grades kindergarten through 12, the needs are obvious:
 
• Elementary students wait in lines in the hallway to use a bathroom.
 
• High school students fill the hallway and edge past each other during passing times between classes.
 
• Students taking ITV courses share the space with study hall students or computer business classes.
 
• The gymnasium, or multi-purpose room, holds classes all day with student sports practices from 5:30 am until 9 pm. With that kind of schedule, the stage is inaccessible for rehearsals and performances.
 
• The library is too small to welcome a class of 25 students for an activity or lesson.
 
• Students in the second grade classroom also have to make space for a principal’s office, as their teacher Melissa Lahti serves both roles.
 
• Students who require special services may be crammed into a storage space for one-on-one instruction with a teacher or aide.
 
• Desks in the elementary classrooms stretch from wall to wall and from the front whiteboard to the back shelves.
 
• Desks in the high school classrooms stretch from wall to wall and from the front whiteboard to the back shelves.
 
• And, perhaps most telling, 276 students pass through the tiny cafeteria in a tightly-scheduled 90 minutes, some literally finishing their food and standing up to give their seat to a member of the next group coming in, while yet another class stands along the wall waiting their turn. In the meantime, the food items are stored in any and every available space, including the floor and the sinks.
 
Proposed changes
Eight months ago, a group of parents approached the Lewis & Clark school board with these concerns, concerns that increased in August as the school’s enrollment continued its growing trend. The school administrators and teachers weighed in as well, and the board consulted with Don Davison of Davison Larson Architects, the firm that originally built Berthold Public School in 1963 and constructed the addition in 1997.
 
The result is a proposed master plan of renovations and new construction for the school, at an estimated expense of $12 million, which requires voter approval.
 
Board president Mike Lautenschlager said the board voted unanimously to pursue this course for the district and the Berthold school. “Our goal is for community involvement and cooperation to do what’s best for all the kids,” he said. “We chose Davison because of his history with the building. There’s a knowledge base there.”
 
Davison addressed the special meeting to describe the proposed addition. “When this school was first built, the requirements were much different than they are today,” he said. “To me, the first need was obvious for the kitchen and dining area.”
 
His plan calls for the entire space currently used as the cafeteria to be remodeled as a kitchen and storage facility, with an addition of 6,200 square feet of cafeteria commons space.
 
He added classrooms for the high school, including two for language arts, two for math, one for junior high classes, one for computer sciences, one as a separate computer lab, and two for social studies, for a total of 12,700 square feet.
 
The current high school classrooms would become science classrooms, ITV classrooms, and special education classroom space.
 
Four classrooms would be added to the elementary wing, including one for 5th grade, one for 3rd grade, one to split the combined 2nd grade and use as a computer lab, and one to relocate the 6th grade, for a total of 7,400 square feet.
 
Additional restrooms would be built in both wings to accommodate student needs.
 
Another highlight of Davison’s plan included a 20,130 square-foot multi-purpose area, with gymnasium seating for 1300 people, two new locker rooms with access to the football field, and storage facilities.
 
The plan also proposed remodeling the administration area to allow private meetings with parents, students, counselors and principals, space for the business manager and secretary, and a superintendent’s office.
 
The proposed renovations and additions would provide space for up to 200 additional students in the building.
 
Davison looked to the future as well in his proposal, with three areas designated for building expansion and three areas specified for new parking.
 
Concerns for students
and teachers
Principals Lahti and Peggy Person discussed their own concerns with the audience, especially as related to the increased academic demands made on their students.
 
Lahti talked about class sizes and the fact she had no magic number for the perfect situation. “When I walk into that classroom, I’m not thinking numbers, I’m thinking people,” she said. “We have done a lot of creative things to get to this point, and now we’re even asking teachers to leave a room during their prep periods so someone else can use it.”
 
Person said the proposed additions and renovations would help with staff retention and scheduling, as more advanced placement and fundamental classes could be offered with smaller student-to-teacher ratios.
 
“My dream for teachers is for them to get really, really good at teaching three different classes, two times a day,” she said.
 
 “If we had two science teachers, two math teachers, two first grade teachers, we could offer a wonderful education for all of our kids, with manageable numbers and good interaction between teachers and students.”
 
Investment cost
Superintendent Brian Nelson took the floor to address perhaps the most difficult issue of the meeting--the cost of the proposed project. The board has proposed $12 million in general obligation bonds on a 20-year repayment schedule, with a current fixed interest rate of 3.5 percent.
 
He immediately pointed out the potential cost to taxpayers. On a home with a market value of $100,000, the expense would be $6.03 per week or $313.65 per year.
 
For landowners, the average quarter across the four counties would be billed an additional $1.23 per acre or $196 per quarter, annually.
 
“Our assessed school evaluation is $151 million,” Nelson said, “and by state law we have a five percent limit of indebtedness for the district. But we know we’re going to need more than $7.6 million for this project. We need your permission to add five percent more to go into debt.”
 
The board has approved a special election to be held January 9, 2012, with two questions on the ballot.
 
The first question, which has to be approved by 60 percent of the voter turnout, asks if the school district shall issue general obligation bonds in an amount not to exceed $12 million for the purpose of the building, renovation and remodeling proposal.
 
The second question, which must be approved by 50 percent of the voter turnout, asks if the debt limit for the district shall be increased five percent, on the assessed value of the district’s taxable property, beyond the five percent allowed by the state constitution.
 
Nelson pointed out several factors that could decrease the debt load or reduce the amount of time needed to repay the loan. He mentioned the Enbridge property will be added to the tax rolls next year and that a growing population within the district would add more taxpayers.
 
He discussed the mill levy over the past few years. “From 2003 to the present, our general fund mill levies have been well below the cap allowed by the state,” he said. “It was only in the 2007-2008 school year that we had to levy at 185 mills. We’ve saved the taxpayers $4.958 million by not levying the maximum number of mills each year.”
 
He also reminded the audience that the $313,000 bill for the addition built in 1997, which was originally turned down by voters but pursued by the school board, would be paid in full this year. “We don’t come to the people very often,” he said, “but we have an issue now that we need to do something about. This has been bottom-driven, and this has come from our teachers, parents and students.”
 
The estimated cost per square foot is $225, but Nelson said no definite bids could be requested until and if the bond issue were approved.
 
Talking to the voters
Nelson and Lautenschlager answered questions from the audience regarding the impact of a proposed new 900-unit development for Berthold, increased enrollment and the need for separate elementary and high school buildings. “We’ve approached this as a plan to address our needs now,” said Lautenschlager.
 
Nelson explained that new development in the community would give the district a higher assessed value, which would allow the district to borrow more funds for building or to pay off projects sooner. Higher student enrollment would also translate to additional funds from the state.
 
Other parents asked about space for special education services and full-time, full-day kindergarten.
 
Davison said classroom space would be available and that his proposal allowed for flexibility. “The space is there for special services, and we could divide those rooms into separate spaces,” he said. “We didn’t block out those spaces at this time, until we know what the needs are.”
 
The meeting adjourned with several audience members talking to board members and administrators directly.
 
Nelson is aware the bond issue will be a tough sell across the large district, but the question is important to all the voters. “In the Berthold-Carpio area, people see that we need to do this,” he said as he talked about the public visiting the Berthold school for various activities. “Our hope is that in Makoti and Plaza, they can support it as well. They do attend some sports programs here, and some of their students come for classes. Any of our communities could grow and at some point, the people in Berthold may need to support an addition in one of the other schools, too.”
 
Nelson hopes to discuss this topic with all the parents of Berthold students. “I’d like to meet with each class of parents, just to talk to them,” he said. “It’s time for them to step up and invest in their kids again.”
 
Like Nelson, Lautenschlager hopes for cooperation among all the district patrons. “There’s a lot of uncertainty through the whole area right now,” he said in reference to new developments and families looking for work and housing. “But it’s always a good thing to have more kids in the district, and we have an exceptional district with a lot of good kids and parents. That makes all of our jobs easier.”
 
Voters within the Lewis & Clark School District, which includes portions of Ward, Renville, Mountrail and McLean counties, will be asked to vote on the two questions in a special election scheduled for Monday, January 9, 2012.
 
Polls will be open that day from 7 am until 7 pm at the senior citizens centers in Berthold, Carpio, Plaza, Makoti and Ryder for the election.
 
Additional information meetings about the need for an expansion of the Berthold Public School are scheduled for November 10th at the Ryder Senior Citizens Center at 7 pm; November 14th at the Makoti School gym at 7 pm; November 17th at the Plaza School gym at 7 pm; and November 21st at Missy’s Cafe in Carpio, beginning at 7 pm.
 
Persons with further questions about the proposed building project or the special election should contact Lewis & Clark School District Superintendent Brian Nelson at 701-453-3484.