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After years of fitting into spare corners, Zumbro Education District settles into a new home

The schools making up the Zumbro Education District include Blooming Prairie, Byron, Stewartville, Hayfield, Kasson-Mantorville, and Triton. Until recently, Pine Island was a member district of ZED as well.

Zumbro Education District
Executive Director Patrick Gordon gives a tour of the new Zumbro Education District in Kasson on Monday, Aug. 22, 2022.
Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin
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KASSON — The start of this school year was a bigger deal for the Zumbro Education District than it has been in the past.

That's because ZED moved into its brand new facility. At more than 61,000 square feet, it cost $16.47 million. It's located on the outskirts of Kasson, just north of Kasson-Mantorville High School.

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ZED is not a traditional school. Instead, it serves six other school districts, providing specialized services that would be economically difficult for those individual districts to provide on their own.

"That's kind of one reason ZED was formed," Executive Director Patrick Gordon said. "The districts said 'We're going to pool our money and create a hub that provides things that we can't afford or find.'"

Among others, it offers programs for hearing- and visually impaired students. It runs an alternative learning center, behavioral support and special education services.

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The school districts making up ZED include Blooming Prairie, Byron, Stewartville, Hayfield, Kasson-Mantorville and Triton. Until recently, Pine Island was a member district of ZED as well.

Unlike a normal school district, ZED can't put a referendum before voters, asking them to fund a new project. Nor can it go to a bank. Rather, it has to get all of its member districts to sign off on the project.

And with six different sets of school leadership and boards of directors — and with each having different needs, agendas, and financial situations — that's no easy task to coordinate. Prior to getting the green light for the construction of the new building, there were three failed attempts to do so.

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In spite of the fact that it took a while to get construction of the new facility underway, the member districts know the value that ZED offers.

"They've really designed that building to meet the needs of the different levels of disabilities," said Mike Neubeck, superintendent of Byron Public Schools. "Those sort of things really help those students focus and stay engaged more than when they were in older buildings here."

Previously, ZED was spread out over three different buildings that weren't built for the unique needs of its student population.

By comparison, ZED's new facility is tailor-made for its purposes. The building has a calming room furnished with a beanbag and a light that alternates from one color to another. It has an 800-square-foot sensory room. There's a stairway going from the second floor directly out to the basketball court to help maintain separation between different student programs.

Zumbro Education District
The new Zumbro Education District in Kasson on Monday, Aug. 22, 2022.
Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin

Even in subtle ways, the facility is built for the unique needs of its students. It has wide hallways, reducing the possibility of students feeling closed in. It has showers that will benefit the district's homeless population.

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Aside from having a building uniquely suited for the needs of its students, the school also will benefit from simply having everything under one roof. Teachers and staff will be able to collaborate and coordinate more easily. It also will help with transportation since the member districts won't have to transport their students to different buildings.

Besides all the bells and whistles of the new building, the leadership of the school is excited to simply have a space to call their own. Even before its most recent stint in Byron, the education district had always existed in whatever space was available.

"ZED has always been nomadic," Gordon said. "We've been in Dodge Center, we've been in Kasson, we've been in Stewartville, Byron."

He went on to say that being in one stable building gives the students and teachers a sense of ownership. Mark Matuska, superintendent of Kasson-Mantorville Public Schools, reiterated that as well.

"It is just beautiful," Matuska said about the new ZED facility. "I think it gives the kids that attend there a real sense of pride."

Jordan Shearer covers K-12 education for the Post Bulletin. A Rochester native, he graduated from Bemidji State University in 2013 before heading out to write for a small newsroom in the boonies of western Nebraska. Bringing things full circle, he returned to Rochester in 2020 just shy of a decade after leaving. Readers can reach Jordan at 507-285-7710 or jshearer@postbulletin.com.
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