Nativity of Our Lord north building considered option for easing overcrowding
BY EILEEN PERSIKE
After more than an hour of discussion Monday night, the School District of Rhinelander Board of Education concluded its special meeting with a plan to move forward with the consideration of purchasing the Nativity of Our Lord north property.
Superintendent Kelli Jacobi reported to the board information it sought at the March 12 meeting regarding space needs of the district, current facility needs as proposed by building principals, possible reconfiguration of the current three elementary grade level buildings and an approximate cost of what expenses would be if the district would further consider the purchase of the Nativity north building in an effort to meet the district’s needs.
The administration was approached late last year about the possibility of the district buying the north building, also known as St. Joe’s. Jacobi toured the facility and said it would be a location in which the district could house the early childhood and 4-K students. It also has space where a private daycare (not run by the school district) could be located which would fill a need for the community. The facility, which includes classrooms, a kitchen, church and rectory, has an asking price of $649,000.
Current Space Needs
On Monday night, Jacobi told the board the elementary buildings, Central, Crescent and Pelican, are “being fully utilized to the max,” and are lacking meeting space and confidential office and meeting spaces.
“We know that Crescent and Pelican are stretched to the limit,” she said. “We are using all spaces available for instructional spaces.”
Additionally, Jacobi noted, gymnasiums and libraries at all facilities are small for the number of students, and only one of the schools has a separate space for music and art. Options that were discussed Monday for easing overcrowding include doubling classrooms, using portable classrooms and leasing commercial space. None of which, she added, is a “long-term fix.”
“We don’t know about other businesses moving into our community,” Jacobi said. “The (state Forestry Department) will be bringing staff here, and we should find out numbers of school-age children this summer. There is talk of other enterprise coming to this area. The governor is making it one of his projects for the Northwoods.”
To that point, Jacobi said the Nativity building would provide space for the future, by remodeling the current sanctuary into six classrooms. If the Nativity building is purchased to house early childhood and 4-K, the remaining elementary schools could be reconfigured into kindergarten through grade 5 schools, or neighborhood schools, which is something Jacobi said “parents would get behind.”
“As far as I am concerned, portables would be out of the equation as a last gasp – that’s pretty ridiculous for teaching,” said Duane Frey.
“So the most logical solution would be reconfiguring and consider moving eighth graders to the high school like Eagle River did,” said David Holperin. “Did anyone look at that? Is there a formula? Have you as an administration weighed the possibility of moving eighth graders into the high school rather than doing this?”
Jacobi hesitated and replied that, yes; the administration had looked into that.
“It is so unpopular with parents that we have to be careful how we talk about it,” Jacobi said. “We have beautiful spaces in the middle school now – science labs, student lab space for the collaborative learning that needs to take place. We know that if we move our fourth and fifth, or fifth graders to the middle school, we would lose those spaces. Could we do it? Sure.”
Board members Mary Peterson and Judy Conlin also responded to Holperin’s suggestion of moving eighth-graders to the high school.
“There’s a reason why eighth grade has been part of the middle school or part of way back when, just a seventh and eighth grade school,” Peterson said. “It is part of their physical development, it is part of their learning style, and it has proven to be a good educational philosophy.”
“Schools across the state and the country have made a shift to middle schools rather than junior highs that were based on the high school model,” Conlin said. “You meet a space need but I’m not sure instructionally what positives come out of that. Is it still going to be the best solution educationally and instructionally, or is it just a decision we made to plug people into spaces?”
Holperin said he doesn’t see that as an ideal solution.
“But when we’re talking potentially $1 million to $3 million or more for spending, in deference to our taxpayers, I think it should be considered,” he said.
Tackling the motion
As was discussed at the March 12 meeting, it was brought up again that in order to move forward, the district must make an offer to purchase before it could bring inspectors in to check out the building’s condition. Some board members were unhappy with the part of the motion that required the board to with a make an offer and note a maximum dollar amount it authorized the realtor to offer. It was suggested that the maximum amount on the motion would be the asking price of $649,000.
“My concern is we’re operating with total unknowns as far as St. Joe’s is concerned,” said Ann Munninghoff Eshelman. “We don’t know…you talk about the possibility that it could cost us $100,000 for the roof and another $100,000 for the boiler, or vice versa. I don’t understand how we can compare what we need to do to our schools when we have a good knowledge of what the conditions are to a school where we don’t have that information. How could we possibly do that when we don’t know what the building’s worth?”
Board president Ron Counter reasoned that “you base your offer on contingencies and we’ve been advised this by our legal counsel, not just some (guy) on the street.”
The actual amount the board would offer, Jacobi said, would be based on the sale prices of comparable properties in the Rhinelander area. Attached contingencies would be based on the inspections, Jacobi said. The final contingency is required by law – a vote of approval by district taxpayers.
Board treasurer Mike Roberts pointed out that everything the school board does in relation to the possible purchase of the Nativity north property is done in the public eye, which means thinking through the process.
“I think we need to make an offer, do our inspections and get some engineers in there to get some cost estimates for actual construction costs there would be for changes we need to make to that building,” Roberts said. “I think it’s important we put the offer on the table before we do that because if we hire an inspector to go in there to do this, everything we do is public that inspection becomes public and someone can go in and jump and make an offer – they would have the inspection, they could jump us and make an offer knowing what the inspection is because we have to do everything in the public.”
He added that it’s “important that we make an offer” and follow the attorneys’ and realtor’s suggestions.
“We can’t just keep spinning our wheels; I think we need to move forward.”
Holperin again suggested the administration should investigate the “reconfiguring of eighth graders to the high school building and fifth graders to the junior high” and include it as part of a proposal to the taxpayers.
“It should be an integral part of our ongoing discussion when we are weighing the possibility of spending potentially $500,000 to $1 million,” he said.
Conlin again responded, saying, “I can’t vote for something like that because I don’t think it’s instructionally and educationally valid.”
Dennis O’Brien admitted to being “a little bewildered” by the night’s discussion.
“It appears to me we have a conflicting and unspoken argument about what is our priority as a board,” O’Brien said. “Are we trying to save the most money or are we trying to provide the best education through the type of infrastructure that we have? That question, in my mind, should be answered first and then we proceed along.
“David’s suggestion may very well be valid as far as being cost efficient, but on the other hand I hear people saying we have to get this building so we can get more classroom space – it’s best for our educational mission. I’m in favor of the educational mission, I think we can show ourselves to be foolish to save a couple pennies now and not address the long term needs of the community.”
He also added that he was “surprised we’re being encouraged” to be unconcerned about the condition of the building before submitting an offer.
A motion was made by Roberts and amended by Holperin, which read: Contract with Ron Skagen, First Weber Realtor, to draft an offer to purchase for the Nativity of Our Lorn north property, not to exceed an amount of $649,000 and to include in the offer all necessary contingencies.
The motion passed 8 to 1, with Munninghoff Eshelman casting the lone dissenting vote. The board agreed to meet with Skagen and Jacobi in closed session after Skagen has researched the market to determine the amount of the actual offer.