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School seeks to prove need for project

Posted 1/12/16 (Tue)

School seeks to prove need for project

(This is the first in a series of reports leading up to a $9.9 million school bond vote, set for Tuesday, Feb. 9, in Divide County.)
By Cecile Krimm
The photo shows a classroom that looks like a tornado hit it -- papers and books are strewn on the floor, furniture is out of place and there’s a big mess to clean up.
Taken one day last week after a special needs child “lost control” at Divide County Elementary school, the picture is a vivid illustration of the need not just for more space, but space that addresses different student needs than in decades past.
Incidents like the one documented last week are increasingly regular, said teacher Mandy Wheeling.
“Once a week or every two weeks. Some weeks it’s every day,” she said.
When one student loses control in the special ed room it affects all of the other students, too.
“That’s disrupting their learning,” said Wheeling, because other students must leave the room until the situation is under control and order can be restored.
As the Divide County School District prepares for a new vote on a bond issue to expand and renovate portions of the elementary and high schools, school officials are doing everything they can between now and election day, Feb. 9, to convince the public of the need for the project.
“Hopefully there is enough support to move forward with that. It requires a 60 percent super majority,” said Superintendent Sherlock Hirning.
He knows it is not easy to get that level of support. A bond issue for $20 million failed last year with 80 percent of voters against the plan. Now the plan is scaled down by half and projections show the improvements may cost the average homeowner as little as $65 per year in additional property tax.
On Wednesday Hirning visited the Crosby Area Chamber, both to create awareness of the need for the project as well as to encourage people to come to one of the meetings to express support and ask questions.
“People coming to the meetings too often are those who are against it or not sure,” said Hirning. 
“We want people who are for it also,” he said, so it becomes clear this is not just a small group’s dream, but a vision shared by many.
Public meetings set for Thursday, Jan. 21 at the Noonan Community Center and on Monday, Feb. 1 at the high school auditorium will include the latest design proposed. Both meetings are at 7 p.m.
One of the biggest obstacles to people understanding the need, said Hirning is the knowledge the current buildings held even   more students 40 years ago.
“The majority of people who voted against the first one still are not convinced we have enough students to justify the addition of classrooms,” but Hirning said the situation with the growth in special ed is just one factor driving the need, not just for more space, but different kinds of instructional spaces than needed previously. For special ed this includes smaller, more personalized instruction areas within a bigger resource room to help teachers better manage student outbursts.
“Kids can go in there and take a break so they aren’t putting themselves in danger or someone else in danger,” said Wheeling.
Such space would also prevent having to clean up an entire room when a student loses control.
Nationally, Hirning told chamber members, about 20 percent of all students are now believed to be functioning somewhere on the autism scale. In Divide County, that amounts to 60 students “and that’s pretty accurate in our district . . . it’s what we’re dealing with today and if we don’t pay for it trying to deal with the needs of kids now we’re paying for it later” in the form of societal intervention for troubled adults.
Other changes include the widespread use of computers and the need for an elevator to move students who use a wheelchair.
“We didn’t have computer labs when these schools were built. That’s only going to continue to expand,” said Hirning.
Wheeling said a student with autism may need a break during the day where they can get away from the stimulus of a classroom setting but right now there’s really no place to go.
Too, she said, a handicap bathroom within the special ed area is needed to help prevent accidents and minimize disruptions. 
Hirning told the chamber the school board worked hard to pare down the needs. They worked with a number of smaller focus groups since the last vote, all in the hope more people will come to understand the challenges.
For instance, while the elementary band has long practiced in the lunchroom, the band now consists of many more students. What’s more, three lunch periods are now necessary to accommodate all of the kids -- the earliest period beginning at 11:25 a.m. and the oldest students now starting their lunch period at 12:25 p.m.
Gone from the new plan is any additional space for a district office, but still seen as essential is a need to address the arrangement of the elementary secretary’s office and the principal’s office.
Right now, said Principal Tanja Brown, an in-school suspension can seem like a treat, with students hanging out in her office. That doesn’t work well when adult conversations need to take place. As well, she said, in-school suspension puts a child smack in the most exciting traffic area of the school.
Hirning and Brown on Friday showed another concern when they opened the doors of a storage closet off the gym.
Inside were ball carts, craft supplies, donated coats and even permanent school records -- all items they have no place else to store.
“Some of these permanent records are not supposed to be in a place like this,” said Hirning. 
The records must be secure and stored in fireproof filing cabinets
“We need to do it we just don’t know where we’re going to do it,” he said.
Even donations become problematic at the school.
Brown talked about a church initiative to bring cold weather gear and other supplies for students.
“We said, this year, let’s hold off because we don’t have anywhere to store it,” she said.
Similarly, the school district, as part of an eight school consortium, was awarded 16 large exercise machines  for use in lifetime fitness classes. The truck carrying the booty will arrive any day, and there’s no place to put it.
Hirning said a new secondary gym is not in the current proposal though it remains on the master plan for future consideration.
“We still want the general public to know that’s something we still feel there’s a need for,” said Hirning, but it’s not necessarily happening right now.
Back at the chamber meeting, member KayCee Lindsey pointed out another issue the public should take into consideration when voting on the plan.
“At some point all of those students will be in the high school,” she said. “I think people forget all of the growth we have experienced in those elementary areas.”
Absentee ballots are already available at the district office for those who are unable to make it to polling stations in Fortuna, Noonan or Crosby on election day, Tuesday, Feb. 9.