OWATONNA — The Owatonna school board agreed to add another work session — tentatively scheduled for Aug. 1 at 5:30 p.m. — during the board’s meeting Monday as they continue to ponder solutions for the aged Owatonna High School in the wake of a narrowly defeated bond referendum in May for a new building.
The school board and administration need to “start crafting our way toward a decision,” said Jeff Elstad, Owatonna’s superintendent. If the school board and administration want to bring another referendum to voters in November, they will have to submit plans to the Minnesota Department of Education by mid-August for review and comment.
The Morris Leatherman Company started another community survey Tuesday to ascertain feelings around the high school and a bond, and Peter Leatherman, Morris Leatherman’s chief executive officer, is scheduled to present results to the board during a work session July 23. He also interpreted results from a prior survey for the board last fall.
The district has conducted multiple community feedback sessions over the past couple of months to solicit public input on addressing OHS, a building with sections that date back a century. During the first listening session, conducted June 3, roughly 100 residents provided comments and asked questions related to nine overarching topics: the existing edifice, communication with community, taxes and cost, business partnerships, proposed location of a new OHS, building plans, amenities, security and maintenance, and Career Pathways/the future of education.
In succeeding sessions, individuals inquired about possible partnerships between the school district and the city and county, as well as businesses and post-secondary institutions. They want a building that will be secure for its inhabitants, to know where it will be located, and to see what it will look like.
Communication is also critical; it’s incumbent upon the district to relay information to voters in a transparent, trustworthy, and clear manner. Of course, affordability for taxpayers was also foremost on the minds of most — if not all — those in attendance.
Those on hand earlier this month for meetings were each provided four blue dots, which they could place next to various issues in order to help the school board prioritize.
Collecting the most dots between the two meetings were the desire for communicating facility plans, cost, and funding sources, as well as establishing one location for information related to the referendum. That bullet point also included the value of trust, transparency, and distinguishing between Owatonna Public Schools and the Vote Yes committee.
Other areas deemed high-priority via the dots method were: considering remodeling the current site, identifying the location of a new OHS and what it would entail; making education the top priority to send well-rounded students into the world and workforce, and considering partnerships with other entities.
By a margin of 5,762 to 5,642, or 50.52% to 49.47%, voters defeated a bond May 14 that would have led to the construction of a new high school to replace OHS. A volunteer community task force met several times in 2018 and ultimately recommended a new high school be built to replace the current model, which district officials say has a litany of issues due to its advanced age, including deferred maintenance needs of roughly $35 million.
A new OHS, which the district would’ve hoped to open in the summer of 2022, would have been roughly 342,000-square-feet, served a capacity of 1,700 students, included five courts in its gymnasium, a 900-seat auditorium with stage and support spaces for music and theater, a multi-use sports stadium with turf and seating for 3,000, and assorted modern classrooms amenities. It would’ve boasted a secure main entrance adjacent to the main office, adequate commons areas for lunch seating — the current cafeteria doesn’t have enough seats for students in any of the four lunch periods — and hosting community events, a media center, and distinct bus and parent drop-off areas for the safety of students and adults. Pledges from a number of local companies, including a promise of $20 million in cash from Federated Insurance, lowered the bill for taxpayers on the bond from $138 million to $116 million, and the Owatonna Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism expressed unalloyed support for referendum passage, as well.
In other developments Monday, the school board shared results from Elstad’s annual evaluation. The superintendent was assessed by the board during a closed session last month.
Elstad has completed two full years as Owatonna’s superintendent, and the board “has been very pleased with his performance,” an evaluation supported by survey results, said Mark Sebring, chairman of the school board. Elstad’s review was based on the district’s four commitments: 21st Century Learning, High Quality Teaching and Learning, Safe and Caring Community, and Equity.
Elstad demonstrates a growth mindset and expects the same from staff; he also encourages everyone to “fail forward,” embracing innovation to improve outcomes, according to Sebring. While effective communication has been a foundational strength of Elstad’s, he acknowledges the necessity to continually listen to myriad perspectives — and he’s demonstrated that in his reaction to the bond vote by soliciting public input from a wide variety of sources.
He clearly has a passion for deepening relationships with students, he’s filled his cabinet with professionals who embrace building relationships, and he loves spending time in classrooms, according to Sebring. Opportunities for growth include clearly communicating expectations and identifying metrics to measure professional development.
Relationships are at the forefront of Elstad’s “compassionate personality,” and he takes ownership of building a safe environment for students and staff, according to Sebring. He also recognizes the value of including minority voices, and that “will continue to be a community-wide effort.”
He’s brought training and resources into the district, and he’s willing to lead by example, according to Sebring. He’s helped everyone in the district understand that equity for all includes metrics such as learning ability, race, and socioeconomic status, but his continued challenge will be to help the full community understand equity.
“Thank you for the feedback,” Elstad said. It “will help build goals” for the 2019-2020 school year and beyond.
Finally Monday, the board approved a Long-Term Facilities Maintenance plan for 2019-2020.
Minnesota school districts applying for long-term facilities maintenance revenue must annually complete the application for Long-Term Facilities Maintenance Revenue and submit it to the Minnesota Department of Education. To qualify for Long-Term Maintenance Revenue, school districts must have a 10-year plan adopted by the school board and approved by the commissioner of education.
The plan calls for total expenditures of $1,997,204 in fiscal year 2019 and $2,028,027 in fiscal year 2020. Expenditure categories include health and safety, remodeling for approved voluntary pre-kindergarten under Minnesota Statutes, accessibility, and deferred capital expenditures and maintenance projects.
When fixtures in classrooms are in need of attention, staff members fill out maintenance requests, and though those “were pretty high throughout this year, we’re looking pretty good, now,” said Bob Olson, the district’s director of facilities. “Our system works great right now.”
The goal is to address needs within a week, although that’s not always possible because, for example, “we might need to order a part,” he said. Through the SchoolDude software, the district is able to track the time it takes to complete fixes, as well as dollars spent.