Tuesday night, community members got the chance to weigh-in on the progress of a long-range comprehensive facility plan for Brainerd Public Schools.
About 50 people came to the Washington Educational Services Building to hear what the district's committee learned since it started the long-range facilities planning process in July of 2015.
The process has involved a steering committee and a full committee, both of which involve representatives from the community and receive input from district staff and faculty members. The committee was guided throughout the process by the Cuningham Group, a Twin Cities-based architectural firm.
The committee has been trying to determine the school district's needs looking 10, 20, even 50 years into the future, interim Superintendent Bob Gross said, in his welcoming remarks. They've looked at a ton of data, he said, and visited other schools to learn what other districts are doing.
Two things became clear during the process, Gross said. The district has work to do and the process involved needs to be community driven.
"This is not just a school district, this is a community that needs to decide what kinds of schools do we want here in Brainerd?" Gross said.
Much of Tuesday's presentation was devoted to going over the data behind the long-range planning process, with Steve Lund, director of business services, explaining the numbers.
Perhaps the most interesting portion of Lund's presentation was his overview of how the district would fund future construction in the district. The district is currently positioned well with good liquidity, he said, and also has very low leverage, or debt. It's lower compared to other districts of similar size, he said, and the district has been aggressive in paying off its debt.
If the district were to take on a large construction project, it would issue bonds to fund it, Lund said. The district's property tax levy would then pay for that debt, he said. For a $100,000 home in the district, the district's current tax levy is $332, with $88 of that going to debt service. The state average bond debt is $89, while the state average tax levy is $362.
"By and large, we're comparable on the level of our taxes," Lund said.
Because the district has been aggressive in paying its existing debt, it has the capacity to put together a large bond issue without increasing the tax impact, Lund said. Specifically, the district could issue $103 million in bonds over a 25-year term without any tax levy impact.
"So we've got some opportunities that we can really start to dream and plan about what perhaps could be," Lund said. "Knowing that we've got some possibilities to fund it that aren't going to be overwhelmingly burdensome from a cost perspective."
Knowing that, the district should consider a combination of rightsizing, renewal, reinvestment and replacement, Lund said. A comprehensive plan or recommendation will take all of these options into account, he said.
Part of the planning process has involved reviewing enrollment data, reviewing the conditions of the district's facilities and looking at the costs and financial capacity of the district.
The process included a comprehensive review of the district's enrollment forecasting, Lund said. It wasn't surprising to see the review revealed figures close to what the district projects, he said. Enrollment drives 90 percent of the district's revenue, he said, so it's important to project it correctly.
Enrollment projections become less accurate when made more than five to six years out, Lund said. Based on an average growth projection, the district could expect to add 473 students over the next five years.
Lund pointed out the importance of considering changing student needs when it comes to projecting enrollment. In 1998, 12.6 percent of district students received special education services. Today, that figure is 20.4 percent. Classrooms for special education students look different than standard classrooms, he said, and often require spaces more focused on smaller group or one-on-one learning.
"Regardless of the growth you may see in your numbers, you can't factor out the growth that you're going to see in the changing needs of your students," Lund said.
The Cuningham Group spent last summer taking a fine-toothed comb through the district's facilities and came up with a thick, comprehensive report, Lund said. He didn't go into full detail on the report, but instead provided an overview of the different facilities in the district.
There's 12 facilities in the district, comprising 1.2 million square feet and 289 acres of land, Lund said. The oldest building in the district, the one the meeting took place in, was built in 1929. The newest building, Forestview Middle School, was built in 2004.
For each building, Lund provided the right-size capacity, as well as its current enrollment. Right-size capacity involves assessing a building on a square foot per student basis, he said, while also factoring in the number of students in each classroom, the number of classrooms, how many classrooms can have individualized instruction areas, as well as how many students can be supported in core spaces like gyms, cafeterias and media centers.
"It's not simply just one division formula," Lund said.
At two of the 12 buildings, the current enrollment falls under the building's right-size capacity. Lund also pointed out which facilities had the possibility for expansion. Half the buildings had no expansion opportunities, while three could expand after acquiring adjacent property.
Highlights of Lund's overview included his assessment of Riverside Elementary School. There's no room for expansion at the school, he said, because "we have taken this building as far as we can go with it." His statement was met by knowing laughter from the assembled group.
When it came to Forestview, Lund admitted, "not much to see here, folks." The newest district building has plenty of capacity and also features expansion opportunities if they were needed.
"Just beautiful, wonderful, functions great," Lund said.
Brainerd High School's South and North campuses compose 52 acres on the Mississippi River in the center of the city of Brainerd, Lund said. Expansion opportunities are possible, he said, possibly incorporating the courtyard in the middle of North Campus.
"We really see this as our flagship for our community," Lund said.
Future maintenance of the district's buildings involves renewing them and updating the structures that are reaching the end of their useful lives, Lund said. It also incorporates addressing deficiencies the district hasn't had funds to fix, like handicap accessibility issues. There are also standard fixes, like roofs, boilers, air-handling systems, windows and more.
To measure these costs, the district worked with Kraus-Anderson, a national construction company and leader when it comes to constructing schools, Lund said. They were able to provide a rough order of magnitude estimate, he said, which adds up construction costs, contingencies and soft costs. They also provided a replacement cost comparison, in order to determine what it would cost to build a new school when looking at repairing an existing one. These costs consider maintenance over a 10-15 year time frame.
Washington Educational Services Building, the oldest building in the district, had the highest future maintenance costs, coming in at $20 million. Forestview Middle School had the lowest cost, at $1.1 million. The total future maintenance costs for all buildings in the district is $70.6 million.
However, Lund stressed it's important to look at the maintenance costs broken down on a per-square-foot basis. When figured this way, Harrison Elementary School's cost was highest at $254 per square foot, with Lincoln Elementary School close behind at $244 per square foot.
Process so far
Committee members Mike Dillon and Kim Ellingson went through a presentation detailing the goals of the long-range planning process, as well as what the committee has been up to since starting the process last July.
Long-range facilities planning is necessary in order to understand space needs, assess the conditions of schools, enhance education opportunities and create a vision for the community, Dillon said. For these important reasons, the plan needs to be developed with purpose, he said.
Consultants from the Cuningham Group went through a complete assessment of some district buildings throughout the summer, Dillon said.
In December, some members of the committee visited Alexandria to get a tour of the new high school and bring back thoughts and ideas for the district's facilities. Also in December, committee members visited Watertown-Mayer Elementary School, Hopkins High School and North Park Elementary School in Columbia Heights.
The group has started moving into specifics, Dillon said, and has started looking at possible solutions or recommendations to present to the school board. The initial goal was to bring a long-range comprehensive facilities plan to the school board for adoption in a May meeting, he said. Gross said that timeline may have to be extended, because there will be more feedback coming between now and the scheduled May 9 board meeting.
"Can we do that by May?" Gross said. "Well, that would be ambitious."
The group made time to put together a mission statement in order to determine what it wants, Ellingson said.
"We want educational environments that reflect Brainerd's commitment to quality," Ellingson said.
The group is committed to integrating technology into learning, creating adaptable environments, implementing best practices and creating facilities that can be the centers of their communities while maximizing collaboration for all members of the community, Ellingson said.
Following the hour-long presentation, community members got the chance to provide their input and ask questions.
Community members brought up concerns like accommodating English-language learners, maintaining community access to district facilities, maintaining transparency throughout the planning process and handicap needs. They also asked where potential new elementary schools might go and if they would be built new or replace a current school.
Dillon said it would be ideal to replace a building where it's currently located, with a limitation being a newer elementary school would require more acreage. The neighborhood elementary schools are critical to their surrounding neighborhoods, Gross said, and they should be treasured.
The committee hasn't formed an opinion on a recommendation yet, Dillon said, which is why the committee is seeking community feedback.
"The findings aren't hard to figure out," Dillon said. "We have a space problem, we have a maintenance problem and we have an older building issue problem."
The committee was told to limit the size of any potential new elementary school it would consider recommending, Dillon said. Instead of creating a Forestview-sized elementary school, he said, they would focus on a school with a capacity of up to 600 students.
"Does that mean we have to build up to that?" Dillon said. "Not necessarily."