NEW ULM - About five years ago, the River Bend Education District went through strategic planning sessions that identified building needs as the top priority for the district.
River Bend - which provides a range of special education services, as well as an alternative school program, to member schools - looked into a range of solutions.
The possibilities included adding on, and remodeling, its 20th Street site, and moving to the now closed New Ulm public school on State Street.
Photos by Steve Muscatello
Some summer programs are already using the new River Bend classrooms like this independent study class.
None of the options reviewed received approval from the district's board of directors - until the building that housed Quality Fitness on South Broadway became available, following the closure of that business.
"All the reasons why the other options were rejected were answered by this building," says River Bend's chief administrator, Linda Wintz, Director of Special Education.
With the new building, "we were not next to the railroad tracks, we'd have more room, we wouldn't be landlocked... We would have the green space, the playground, the outbuilding... It was a doable space..."
The River Bend board of directors approved the relocation and remodeling plans for the South Broadway building in the spring of 2008, and the remodeling took place over the past school year.
As a result, River Bend will begin the upcoming school year at its new South Broadway home, just behind Taco Johns.
Furniture, equipment and supplies were moved to the new building at the end of the school year, and staff are currently in the process of setting up their new work space.
Some summer programs are already running at the site.
The cost of the remodeling project stands at $3.54 million, and River Bend is acquiring the building through a 20-year lease for purchase arrangement.
That is because unlike member school districts, it cannot levy taxes to fund the purchase of the building. Instead, it is funded by contributions from member schools (including Butterfield, GFW, Lafayette Charter, Madelia, New Country School, New Ulm, St. James, Sibley East, Sleepy Eye and Green Isle Community School).
River Bend board members will be able to tour the new building July 28; an open house for the public is being planned for Tuesday, Sept. 15, 3-6 p.m.
A tour of the facility reveals many distinct advantages of the new site.
It is roomier, and the classrooms have windows, a feature missing in the classrooms at the old location.
To Wintz, the larger classrooms are one crucial advantage of the new campus.
Instead of 450 square feet, the classrooms are 600 square feet - a size typical of classrooms in other schools.
Wintz points out other advantages, as well:
* A playground and a basketball court outside, fenced off and rimmed by some green space. There's a small, attractive area inside the fenced-off yard for students on break to "hang out" as well.
* An outbuilding which will be used as a garage for vehicles used by itinerant staff, especially important in winter.
* A multi-purpose room offering motor (or small gym) space, located inside the building.
* A much cleaner, more efficient serving room for lunches.
* A separate fax room.
* More meeting spaces. These include smaller meeting rooms for meetings with families and others. In particular, unlike at the old site, officials from other agencies who work, and hold meetings with, students, families and staff on campus now have "private spaces" for these sessions.
* A larger conference room for training and workshops, so staff would not have to go outside the building for these events as much.
* A roomier, more attractive student commons area. For the first time, points out Wintz, students have lockers and won't have to carry their coats when changing classrooms.
Overall, Wintz points out, the new building is set up more like other schools - rather than being retrofitted to fit classes in.
The building is meant to better accommodate the education district's existing programs, rather than an expansion of programming.
There is one extra classroom - which now houses independent studies (night classes) - those were sharing classrooms before. This room is potentially available for another use.
Some expansion will happen, though, with a program called Imprints.
It serves children with emotional and behavior issues and is funded as a special education program - like the existing Team Program for students with emotional and behavior disorders (EBDs).
But the new program targets a different group of children - ones who would benefit less from therapy and more from "high structure" and "clear boundaries," said Wintz.
Member districts until now have addressed the needs of these children differently - with one-on-one special education staff on-site, for example - since none of them have separately had the opportunity to fund a special classroom.