WORTHINGTON — The District 518 school board discussed potential solutions at a work session Thursday for moving operations out of the former West Elementary building.
With the planned W.E.L.L. project now off the table, the board needs to find a different space for community education, adult basic education, early childhood family education and the Nobles County Integration Collaborative, as well as offices for several departments.
The board has two viable directions at this point: either the district can build a facility on district-owned land on Crailshiem Road, west of the Area Learning Center, or it can purchase and renovate an undisclosed existing commercial property near Interstate 90.
Board members discussed the pros and cons of each option Thursday.
Building a new facility would provide access to the gymnastics facility and reinforce the campus vision with the ALC and the planned intermediate school onsite. However, the area of the available land would limit the size of a new building, and not every district need would fit in the space.
The existing commercial building is about 68,000 square feet, providing more than enough space to fulfill all the district's needs. This would allow for potential expansion of services in the future. Because the building has a solid foundation and structure, it would be a much quicker build, but the facility does need some work, such as a new roof. However, the location might not be ideal for some of the included building uses.
Board member Mike Harberts noted that if the board chooses the renovation option, the public may wonder why it isn't simply renovating the existing West building, adding that it needs to be clear why that isn't being considered.
The biggest problem with the West Elementary site is the location, board member Linden Olson said. It's built on swampland, and the foundation is buckling and sinking — a problem that renovation will not solve. Reusing that site will also not solve the issue of not enough parking, board member Stephen Schnieder added.
Harberts also asked whether taxpayers get a say in the decision.
"We represent the community," board chair Brad Shaffer said. Funding for the project has already been raised, so a referendum shouldn't be needed.
Schnieder countered that the board should welcome input from the community.
Shaffer wanted to know how the city would feel about the potential for a commercial property to be taken off the tax roll. While it remains to be seen how the Worthington City Council would react, Worthington City Administrator Steve Robinson is supportive of the idea, Superintendent John Landgaard said.
A major unknown at this point is the purchase price of the commercial building. Without having that information, the board cannot make a definite decision, but board members generally favor this option if the price is doable. The district has already set aside about $15 million that would have gone toward the W.E.L.L. project, so the question is whether or not the commercial space can be purchased and renovated within that price range.
"Sometimes investment for a short-term gain can be a long-term headache," Schnieder told his fellow board members, urging them to keep in mind the district's long-term vision while considering which building option fits best.
One thing nobody wants, Olson added, is to spend two years negotiating the price of the building. He asked that district staff find out an asking price as soon as possible, so the board can make a decision.
It would also be helpful to tour the commercial building personally, board member Lori Dudley said.
At the regular school board meeting Tuesday, the board will vote on giving Landgaard the authority to begin negotiating the price of the building, and discussion will continue once more information is obtained.