Task force recommends upgrades, new schools

Staff Writer
Since 2013, I have primarily covered the Anoka-Hennepin and Spring Lake Park school districts as well as the city of Spring Lake Park for ABC Newspapers.

The Anoka-Hennepin School District Fit for the Future Task Force gave its final report, which included nine recommendations, Jan. 23.

The hallways at Blaine High School are crowded with 2,864 students, the most of Anoka-Hennepin’s five traditional high schools. BHS has less square footage than Anoka, Champlin Park and Coon Rapids high schools. Photo submitted
The hallways at Blaine High School are crowded with 2,864 students, the most of Anoka-Hennepin’s five traditional high schools. BHS has less square footage than Anoka, Champlin Park and Coon Rapids high schools. Photo submitted

Thirty-two parents, community members and district staff members began meeting April 14, 2016, and devoted hundreds of hours to meet the task force’s charge to study community growth and enrollment projections, capacity of schools, staffing rations, future program needs, school boundaries, transportation, condition of schools, technology infrastructure and finance.

After touring schools and hearing from a number of presenters, the task force developed findings and recommendations.

The first recommendation is to upgrade all school buildings to create 21st century learning spaces.

The average age of buildings in the Anoka-Hennepin School District is 49 years, according to task force member Cullen Tanner, pastor at Northern Light Church in Ramsey, graduate of Coon Rapids High School and father of three students in the district, with a fourth starting kindergarten in the fall.

Tanner asked the board to imagine they lived in a house that was 49 years old: “Most every room in that house would have been renovated,” he said.

“We will need to do some updates,” Tanner said. “Students are different now than they were in the ’50s.”

Buildings range in age from 15 to 100 years old.

A second recommendation is to purchase land and build elementary and middle schools in the fastest growing areas of the district, which the report identifies as Blaine, Dayton and Ramsey.

The task force hosted a panel discussion with representatives from Andover, Anoka, Blaine, Brooklyn Park, Coon Rapids, Dayton and Ramsey May 12, 2016, to learn more about housing trends.

Anoka and Coon Rapids have less than 5 percent of property open for development, and Brooklyn Park has open areas primarily in the Osseo School District, not Anoka-Hennepin. One-third of Andover is open for development, mostly on the east side of the city. Blaine, Dayton and Ramsey have the largest potential for growth.

Blaine is experiencing the fastest growing population in the district. More than 400 houses were built last year, and 545 more are expected in the next five years. Longer term, from 2021 to 2040, predictions by city staff see 4,600 additional homes going up in the city.

Ramsey is seeing more than 200 housing units a year, and since Dayton gained access to city sewer and water in 2013, 120 new lots have been developed each year, according to the report.

Anoka-Hennepin has a purchase agreement in place with Hilding Farms LLC for 37 acres at 4501 125th Ave. NE in Blaine.

It’s “speculative buying,” according to Chuck Holden, the district’s chief operations officer.

The land will likely house a new elementary school as enrollment continues to surge in the nearby Johnsville Elementary School attendance area.

A 14,000-square-foot addition was made to the school in 2015, but enrollment has grown faster than anticipated, exceeded projections by nearly 50 students this year, jumping total enrollment to 814 this fall.

The task force report lays out no timeline, but encourages the board to take “swift action” in presenting a referendum to voters, another recommendation.

To eliminate safety concerns that portable classrooms pose, the task force recommends removing the 41 in use at high schools, 14 at middle schools and seven at elementary schools.

Going hand in hand with that recommendation is two others that suggest creating additional permanent space in schools to make removing portables feasible and expanding space available for special education students.

Across special education areas, “the common thread of need is additional space,” said Valerie Weaver, task force member and English teacher at Andover High School.

Last school year, 6,055 students received special education services, about 15.1 percent of total student population. The number of students with an Individualized Education Program, commonly referred to as an IEP, has increased by 50 percent in the last 20 years, and the number of students with autism spectrum disorders has more than doubled in the last decade, Special Education Director Cherie Peterson reported to the task force in October, according to the report.

Students with disabilities generally need more space with more equipment, Weaver said.

Three additional recommendations encourage the district to further study open enrollment and its effect on classroom space and achievement; work to attract students to schools with available capacity, such as Coon Rapids High School; and communicate with the community about Anoka-Hennepin’s facilities, unique needs of 21st century education and schools’ value to communities.

“We feel these recommendations will move today’s student forward to be successful as tomorrow’s workforce,” said Kate Thunstrom, task force co-chairperson with Tibli Dickson.

The School Board expressed its thanks for the work of the task force.

“We very much appreciate you laying this very solid foundation for us to work from,” Board Chairperson Tom Heidemann said. “This is not something that is going to go on the shelf. This is just the start of something that I think is much needed.”

With favorable interest rates and district mortgages nearly all paid off, the impact to taxpayers should be “as light as we can possibly make it,” Heidemann said.

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