A proposed site for a new Rochester middle school on the edge of the city is drawing resistance from city staff and council members.
A consultant hired by the Rochester School District says district leaders are trying to draw the most sustainable location and future plan for the district.
The current standoff raises the question: Who is best positioned to select a suitable location for a school?
And, as the district prepares to go to voters this fall for approval of a $173 million bond that would fund the new school's construction, is a location necessary right now?
The Nov. 5 ballot poses two questions to voters. The first calls for $171.4 million to build a new middle school and elementary school and reconstruct two existing elementary schools to accommodate up to 720 students each.
The second question asks for $9.5 million to build a competition pool at Century High School and close all three middle school pools.
The school district has been moving to pick up land for a future school. In March, the school board approved a $2.9 million land purchase agreement contingent on the outcome of the Nov. 5 referendum vote. The 150-acre site, along 40th Street Southwest about a mile west of U.S. Highway 63, would also have room for an elementary school, middle school and high school.
The hang up? Under the city’s long-range plan, that area is not set for urban expansion for more than 20 years. The city plan also calls for prioritizing developments that use existing city infrastructure and can be accessed not only by car, but by bus, bicycle and on foot.
Representing the school district is Kevin Holm, an architect with Duluth-based LHB, Inc. He said his firm's study of the school district's needs showed that the southwest quadrant of the city is the ideal location for a middle school to alleviate crowding at John Adams and Willow Creek middle schools.
And, he says, the school would attract plenty of walking and bicycling students.
“We look at drawing those walking students from 360 degrees,” Holm said. “From a school design standpoint, we’ve always been taught to maximize the number of bikable and walkable students.”
Natural barriers, such as bodies of water, woodlands and steep hills, and artificial barriers, such as highways or heavy-traffic streets, can shrink a site’s accessibility for nearby students, Holm said.
“If you start drawing those offsets — manmade and natural — you start to find a where a school wants to be built,” Holm said.
But city officials and other critics of the site point out that although there aren't barriers to bicycling or walking, the site still lacks infrastructure that make the surrounding area walkable. That includes sidewalks, curbs and gutters.
City Councilman Michael Wojcik suggests the district find a site closer to the city center. He noted the Minnesota Department of Education’s school construction guide provides exceptions for schools constructed in urban or unique areas where suitable land is expensive or scarce. The provision even lists Rochester as an example, Wojcik noted.
“They get why you can’t just build massive greenfield sites in cities like this,” Wojcik said at a Monday study session.
Cindy Steinhauser, the city’s community development director, said the city had identified several potential sites for a middle school. One of those sites could easily be linked to existing city infrastructure and qualifies under the city Planning 2 Succeed guidelines, however it didn’t meet the district’s needs, she said.
Holm said that site wasn’t in the right location to address the middle school crowding.
“If it’s the site I’m thinking of,” he said.
The potential sites the city identified have not been disclosed publicly.
Meanwhile, the 150-acre site along 40th Street gives the district an opportunity to buy and plan long-term, Holm said.
“There’s some value to being a combined campus, but it’s not critical,” Holm said. “I wouldn’t say we’ve eliminated any sites based on acreage.”
A policy test
At the Monday study session, councilman Nick Campion called the school district’s plan the first serious intergovernmental test of the city’s long-term plan and threatens to erode the city’s commitment to a new pattern of development.
Holm said the district’s plan was drawn to fit some of the plan provisions, including reducing driving miles of students.
“We believe it does, but we have not yet run the transportation models,” he said.
It’s also unclear how many students would live within a reasonable walking radius of the school if it is built and opens in time for the 2022 school year. The district hasn’t drawn school boundary lines in part because new housing developments in other areas could affect that map. Such a map wouldn’t be drawn and approved until 2021, Holm said.
An element of the difference between the city and the school district comes down to school size.
Wojcik says smaller schools serving neighborhoods would be a more sustainable and walkable model for the district.
Holm says larger schools that draw from multiple neighborhoods help the district draw boundaries to create socio-economically and ethnically diverse schools.
“If you have a small, neighborhood school, you have a school that takes on characteristics of that neighborhood,” Holm said. “You end up busing students to achieve equity.”
He noted the three Rochester elementary schools — Gage, Gibbs, Franklin — have larger capacities than the proposed 720-student capacity elementary schools the referendum calls for.
Holm also added as neighborhood demographics change, small schools get more easily stressed when an influx of families move into the area. An influx of a dozen students in a grade level affects class sizes in a smaller school, he said. For example, if those dozen students might be spread between two classrooms in a small school versus six classrooms at a larger school.
An agreed need
Where the sides do agree: Rochester schools need the financial boost the bond referendum promises, should it pass.
The specific location of a new middle school is beside the point, when it comes to voting on the simple question of whether or not to fund building one.
School officials see the need reflected in statistics that show all three middle schools bursting at the seams, about 99 percent full. The district projects an influx of 1,200 additional students within five years. Based on projected enrollments in the elementary school that feed into John Adams Middle School and Willow Creek Middle School, the two schools will be about 140 percent capacity.
City leaders expressed support for the bond referendum to help meet the district’s needs.
“It was great they acknowledge the need and support the district’s endeavor,” Holm said.
The location of the proposed schools will still be up in the air when the ballot goes before voters beginning Sept. 20 for early voting at Edison Building, said Linda Freeman, of Strong Schools for Rochester, a group advocating in favor of the referendum.
“To halt the whole referendum based on (school location), I think would be very short-sighted,” Freeman said.