School district public hearings on Sibley expansion; should this Board or the new Board make the decision?

Northfield Board of Education The Northfield Board of Education hosts the first of two public hearings tonight on its proposed construction project at Sibley Elementary School. The hearings are at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, December 10 and Tuesday, December 16 at the Northfield High School Media Center.

The District web site seems to have very little info about the plan. All I could find was this on the home page today:

At the November 24th meeting of the Board of Education, the School Board heard a report on the proposed addition to Sibley Elementary School and how it would address space needs across all three elementary buildings and provide greater program equity for students in each building. The Board then decided to hold two public hearings to present the elementary construction proposal to the community and to receive comment.

The Nfld News published an article last week titled Board considers $2.8 million Sibley expansion.

It would add 10 classrooms and 11,700 square feet of space to Sibley Elementary School.  It would house two of the district’s three Special Needs programs and 50-75 additional students.  It would cost the district $2.836 million, all of which would likely be drawn from the district’s own coffers.

And, on Dec. 22, if everything goes according to plan, the Northfield School Board will vote on whether to carry out the proposed multi-million dollar expansion and renovation project at Sibley Elementary School.

The paper also has an editorial about the expansion in today’s paper.

One interesting element to this decision is that three of the current board members will no longer be on the Board in another month: Paul Hager, Katy Hargis, and Wendy Smith.  Newly-elected Jeff Quinnell, Ellen Iverson, and Anne Maple will begin their terms in January.

  • Should the current board, which has presumably studied this issue long and hard, make the decision?
  • Or should the decision be the responsibility of the ‘new’ board which will have to implement and live with the decision during the next term?
  • And how does this ‘decision dilemma’ compare to the City Council making a decision about liquor store land yet this year vs. waiting till the 4 new council member take their seats in January?

I don’t yet have an opinion on either the expansion or which board should make the decision.  I’m just irritated that the District seems to have published zero information about the expansion on its website for people to review, especially those who can’t attend the public hearings. Sigh.

12/11 6:30am update:

Superintendent Chris Richardson emailed us late yesterday afternoon that a PDF for the public hearing was now available on their web site. It’s titled: Northfield Public Schools, Proposed Sibley Addition, Facilities Study for Elementary Space Needs, November 24, 2008


  1. Bright Spencer said:

    While I see that this expansion is for special needs children, I just want to bring up the point that I keep hearing that around the Twin Cities, many schools are closing due to reduced populations and that those glowing reports of population growth throughout the local counties of 10-20 million people by 2020 has been greatly exaggerated and much lower estimates are now being used. Sorry, I don’t really have a reference but I am sure the decision makers know where to look.
    Just saying perhaps reduced enrollment would allow space already in existence to accommodate the special needs.

    December 10, 2008
  2. Rob Hardy said:

    According to a 2007 state demographer’s report, “the number of married couples with children [in Minnesota] will fall by 24,500 between 2005 and 2015,” reflecting a general aging of the population. The projections for Rice County show the number of 15-25 year olds decreasing between 2005 and 2025. Meanwhile, there seem to be modest rises in the numbers of students being homeschooled or enrolling in charter schools (of which there will soon be three in the Northfield area). Finally, the entire state is facing a devastating budget shortfall, in which many services are facing drastic cuts. Unless the school district can make an extraordinarily compelling case for spending nearly $3 million on an expansion in a period of shrinking populations and swelling deficits, I would have to oppose the plans under consideration. But I have no official say in the matter. Damn you, Northfield voters! 🙂

    December 10, 2008
  3. Peter Millin said:


    Thanks for the info I was wandering about that myself. I think the heavy influx in to suburbia is over anyway, due to rising gas prices. Especially since Northfield is far away from Minneapolis to be considered a regular suburb anyway.

    We should apply the same thinking to any other further expansion of infrastructure i.e. widening of 19, commuter rail..etc..etc..

    December 10, 2008
  4. Griff Wigley said:

    Thanks, Lahna. Supt. Richardson alerted us late yesterday that that PDF had just been added to their website. I’ve now added it to the blog post above.

    December 11, 2008
  5. Griff Wigley said:

    I essentially endorsed the Sibley Expansion plan on the podcast with Chris Richardson last week.

    And then I reread Rob Hardy’s comments in #2 above.

    What if the recession is so severe that the legislature reduces the per-pupil funding to the districts? The Northfield School Board would have no choice but to cut teaching staff at some point. The district could suddenly find itself with many empty classrooms that could be used for the Special Needs programs.

    I’m now inclined to advise the School Board to wait on its excellent plan. Let the ‘new’ Board assess the economic forecasts while they wait to see what the Legislature does to the funding formulas. A delay in the decision would bump the opening of the new space to 2011 instead of 2010 if the Board decided to go ahead anyway. But that’s a better problem to have than a $3M expansion amidst a cratered budget and a plethora of empty classrooms.

    December 21, 2008
  6. Griff Wigley said:

    Last week’s Strib: $28 million deficit looms for Minneapolis schools.

    Twin Cities school districts, which are now beginning to put their 2009-10 budgets together, began revising their revenue projections downward even before the state’s dire economic forecast was released Thursday. Most are now budgeting under the assumption that the state will give them no increases over the next two years.

    Such a funding freeze would mean schools would lose money as costs continue to rise. For students, parents and teachers, that translates into more rounds of spending cuts for the 2009-10 and 2010-11 school years. For most districts it’s too early to identify what those cuts might be, but some besides Minneapolis already have numbers in mind. Most districts adopt their formal budgets in June…

    Despite some districts’ early projections, school boards are often flying blind at this point in the budget process. Nobody knows what legislators will decide to do. Another state economic forecast comes late in the winter. School districts also often watch Pawlenty’s proposed budget, which is still yet to come, for signs of what their estimates should be. There are often surprises. Last year, for instance, legislators came up with an unexpected 1 percent raise in school funding.

    December 21, 2008
  7. Griff Wigley said:

    The School Board meets tonight at 7:00 PM in the Northfield High School Media Center (PDF agenda) to decide on the Elementary Construction Project.

    December 22, 2008
  8. Griff Wigley said:

    Here’s my first draft of comments I plan to make at the open mic portion of tonight’s school board mtg. I’m open to revisions!

    Good evening Board members!

    I think the expansion plan makes sense and I congratulate you and the staff who worked on it.

    My concern is that the next state economic forecast (due in March) could be worse yet ($7B instead of $5B, for example). If so, the legislature might have to cut school funding to the point where the Northfield School District might be forced into laying off teachers. The district could suddenly find itself with many empty classrooms just as the new expansion opens.

    I think it makes sense for the Board to err on the side of caution at this point and wait till spring to make a decision on a $3M expansion, even it means delaying the opening till 2011.

    If the Board goes ahead now with the expansion and the recession is long and deep, taxpayers may be justifiably angry and wonder why the Board gambled in Dec. 2008 when all economic signs were pointing to a more severe recession.

    If the Board pauses now to wait for more economic information on which to base its decision, taxpayers and parents will likely be understanding, even if it means another year of difficulty managing the Special Needs space problem.

    I urge you to delay your decision.

    December 22, 2008
  9. David Ludescher said:

    Griff: Tell them that you have my proxy.

    December 22, 2008
  10. mike thorsteinson said:

    I believe the School Board should wait until the clouds part a little before undertaking the 2.8 million dollar expansion of Sibley. The State of Minnesota expects greater shortfalls in its February forecast and the responsible thing to do is wait. Perhaps space needs could be temporarily met by using churches, NCRC, or a different time schedule for some classes. School Board leadership must maintain strong community support for our excess levy, and minimize other spending until the economic crisis has passed.

    December 22, 2008
  11. Kevin Dahle said:

    I believe the current school board should make the decision as to whether to move forward with the expansion. The board has toured the facilities, has the best information, and, hopefully, has a thorough understanding of the problem. I know there is a real need to serve students now, both the general student population, and those with special needs.
    The capital budget provides funds that can only be used for these purposes. I have never heard concerns of declining enrollment in Northfield. Numbers for 2010-2020 from the Minnesota Office of Geographic and Demographic Analysis show an overall population increase in Rice County of nearly 14%, including a 28% increase for 5-9 year olds and a 21% increase for 10-14 year olds. A housing study from June 2007 for the city of Northfield (Randall Gross Associates) predicted a population increase of 2,100 residents over the next 5 years.
    I trust the school board, Superintendent, and the business manager to make the right decision in the context of economic and demographic projections. Most importantly, I hope the decision meets our current and future student’s educational needs.

    December 22, 2008
  12. Griff Wigley said:

    I just got this from Supt. Chris Richardson via email:


     Here is the recommendation document I will be sharing with the Board this evening.  I believe it addresses your concerns but keeps us moving forward in meeting the needs of all of our elementary students.

    Revised Sibley Addition Recommendation – December 22, 2008:

       1. We currently have space needs in our three elementary buildings based on the significant growth of several programs for special education and English as a second language (ESL students).  These programs have state and federal class size limits as low as 8 students per classroom which cannot be modified regardless of economic conditions.  State compliance reviews scheduled for next fall will likely mandate moving special education students out of current inadequate spaces, displacing regular education students and further overcrowding these buildings.  We also have significant space inequities between elementary buildings as far as classrooms, media centers, computer labs and restroom facilities.


       2. After the last round of budget cuts, our class sizes have remained relatively large.  Primary classes (K-2) average 22.6 students per classroom with class sizes ranging from 17 in kindergarten to 28 in first grade and intermediate class sizes (3-5) average 23.0 students per classroom with class sizes ranging from 17 in fifth grade to 33 in fifth grade.  If further state budget cuts are made, we would need to look at all parts of the budget including classroom teachers to make those cuts. We also understand that increased class sizes would only slightly increase the number of vacant rooms since the physical ability to hold more students in many of our current elementary classrooms is limited especially when we offer two choice programs Companeros and Contemporary.  For example, with only two sections of Companeros at a number of grade levels, two classes of 18 seem small but one class of 36 is extremely difficult.


       3. Our best information from state and federal sources is that there will be a massive and multifaceted Stimulus Package ready for the 111th Congress to approve and the President to sign shortly after January 20th.  Every source indicates that this bill will target infrastructure and schools.  Quoting from the Transition website, “The Obama-Biden emergency plan would make $25 billion immediately available in a Jobs and Growth Fund for…fast-tracked infrastructure projects.”


       4. To be considered for stimulus funding, schools must have specific, fully approved renovation, repair and construction projects submitted to our House and Senate members immediately so that the plan can be taken up by Congress.  We have already completed a letter and sent it to our congressional delegation for their consideration.  For projects to be considered, they need to be ready to begin construction this spring or early summer.


       5. In order to be “fully approved” from the federal perspective, the Northfield Public School Board needs to approve the completion of the design phase of this project.  By doing so, the district can submit the project to the State for review and comment approval, engage architectural and engineering professionals to design the addition and remodeling project, complete construction documents and provide bid specifications and be prepared, once we determine how the construction project will be funded, to advertise and accept bids and issue lease purchase instruments to fund construction.


       6. Since we had already planned to use capital reserve dollars to fund approximately 1/3 of the project cost, the design phase could be completed using existing capital funds and would not require us to execute the lease purchase instruments prior to knowing whether we were selected for federal stimulus funding.  We could also wait to execute the lease purchase instruments until we have a better idea of the State’s economic situation with the understanding that we need to solicit bids in early April if we intend to accept bids and get construction started in early summer.


       7. As we weigh this project, it will also be important to understand that the current economic situation is likely to positively impact the number of construction bids we receive.  Projects that are currently being bid are coming in very favorably and would likely result in a lower overall cost for the district on the project.


       8. This recommendation provides the school district with the greatest flexibility to take advantage of the federal stimulus funding if available and if not gives us a few more months to gauge the economic situation without eliminating the opportunity to complete construction and remodeling for the 2010-11 school year.  Failure to move forward with the design phase and the State’s review and comment approval eliminates any opportunity to receive stimulus funding and means that elementary  students will wait 2 ½ more years with inadequate and inequitable facilities.  It also places us at risk of having to make additional regular classroom shifts that would further overcrowd buildings based on state and federal compliance mandates placing special education students in larger spaces even if it requires displacing regular education students.


    Revised Superintendent’s Recommendation:

    The administration recommends the approval of the design phase of the Sibley Addition project to include submitting the project to the State for review and comment, engaging architectural and engineering professionals to design the addition and remodeling project, and completing construction documents and project bid specifications.

    December 22, 2008
  13. Griff Wigley said:

    I’m at the Board mtg now. I like Chris’ recommendation to proceed with the just the design phase now and wait a few months to see what happens at the Legislature and with the Federal stimulus package.

    December 22, 2008
  14. Rob Hardy said:

    Sounds okay to me, too.

    December 22, 2008
  15. Griff Wigley said:

    Motion passed 5-1. Katy Hargis voted no but didn’t explain why. Mike Berthelsen was absent, evidently in a snowbank!

    December 22, 2008

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