Building a new Pre-K through second-grade school is going to be the best long-term solution for Decorah.
That was the conclusion reached by the Decorah Shareholders group, a citizens advisory committee which recently was tasked by the Decorah School District with coming up with recommendations for how the District should proceed in bringing its early elementary facilities, West Side (Pre-K through transitional kindergarten) and John Cline (kindergarten - second grade) schools, up to par.
In recent years, discussion has centered around a number of issues plaguing the buildings, such as poor air quality, a lack of natural lighting, security concerns and more.
Shareholders Co-Chairs Mark Lovelace and Andy Bonnet presented the group's findings to the Decorah School Board at its regular meeting Monday evening.
"One of the things we talked about as a group was going into the buildings with an open mind. It just seems like once we walked into the doors of both buildings, the door quickly slammed. We came out of there with a real bad feeling about what we saw," said Bonnet.
The group kept at the forefront three ideas: educational advocacy and environment, safety and security and room for growth.
"We've been told it's virtually impossible to secure John Cline," said Lovelace.
Lovelace expressed many thanks to the District for "all the great stuff going on with the schools, with awards for music, theatre, debate and athletics. It's really amazing, and this is our (Shareholders) opportunity to express our thanks."
He added, "But a lot of success starts at a young age. We like to give a huge pat on the back to the teachers at West Side and John Cline, because they really do get the most out of what they're given."
As a guide for their review, the group referenced a 2009 study put forth by StruXtures Architects of Waterloo.
"Their proposal included three options: A quick fix of approximately $3 million, which would enhance mechanicals and air conditioning and upgrade the electrical at John Cline and West Side. The second was to renovate both buildings more extensively or bring West Side (students) over to join John Cline, for about $9 million. The final option was to build one combined facility, at a cost of about $13 million," said Lovelace.
Lovelace said the Shareholders spent time examining the architects' study, which can be viewed on the District's website under "Shareholders."
"The part that keep resonating with the group was what would happen long-term ... If we're going to invest that kind of money, let's look at 50 years, not 15 years," he said.
Bonnet said the Shareholders agreed John Cline has some "major issues," such as a lack of natural lighting and poor air quality.
In addition, there is space for only one grade-level at a time to have six sections, if needed.
"If state growth numbers go as projected, Decorah's enrollment will go from 1,687 to 1,760 in the next five years. If you factor in the students at North Winn as well, if we did go with the renovation option, within two years we could already be bursting at the seams again with no space to go," said Bonnet.
Bonnet added John Cline has limited "shared space" and the dual gym/cafeteria often dictates what's going on.
He also lamented the limited kitchen space and expressed concerns about the warming kitchen being able to keep food at the proper temperature.
"The District is doing a good job and there is a big move for farm to school, but John Cline offers limited opportunity to do that," said Bonnet.
"If we look at education advocacy and safety and security, the renovation cost would be close to 70 percent of the cost of building new, and it may not address many areas we see as posing major problems," he said.
Bonnet said given the fact North Winn has said it will no longer be able to exist as a stand-alone, K-8 district beyond 2017, the Shareholders did consider that school as an option.
"It was discussed, but we decided it would not be a long-term solution," said Bonnet.
The Shareholders found that while part of North Winneshiek houses adequately sized classrooms, the original section does not.
"To make those older classrooms viable for classroom size, you would almost need to convert two classrooms to one. Optimum classroom size is 800-900 square feet, and some of those are 500 square feet. You're looking at a minimum of $1 million to get it where it would need to be," said Bonnet.
Lovelace and Bonnet said it is the committee's recommendation the District proceed with further research into building a new PreK - 2 facility and schedule some town hall meetings, including tours of both West Side and John Cline schools.
"The high school looked great too, until people actually get inside to see where their kids are learning," said Bonnet.
The Shareholders did not suggest any potential sites for a new facility.
When Board Member John Hjelle asked about the group's preference to not utilize North Winneshiek as a long-term solution, Lovelace said he thinks there is some nice space there that could be discussed, but the Shareholders focused primarily on John Cline and West Side.
Board Vice President Melanie Tietz expressed her gratitude to the Shareholders for the time they have spent on the issue.
"Please tell the members of your committee we appreciate all their work," she said.
Board President Ron Fadness added, "I think the message is clear and strongly advocated by both of you."
Per the Shareholders' recommendation, Superintendent Mike Haluska will work on setting up some town hall meetings and tours of the facilities in the near future.