District 622 reconsiders leasing North St. Paul Community Center

At the Feb. 12 District 622 school board work study session, district administrators presented a plan for a series of program changes in upcoming years.

Some school board members appeared startled when they heard the plan once again includes leasing the financially troubled North St. Paul Community Center, a proposal they rejected last November.

Administrators from community education, early childhood education, special education, alternative learning programs and business services presented their wide-ranging plans to the North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale School Board in hopes that they will be discussed at the Feb. 26 school board meeting.

Besides the possibility of leasing the community center, the proposed changes include redesigning the alternative learning program, bringing programs for special education students and those with emotional behavior disorders back into district facilities, and remodeling the Beaver Lake Education Center to house the new Early Childhood and Family Center.

Redesigned alternative learning program

According to administrators, District 622's alternative learning programs need to be redesigned.

"Our school district currently has an 80 percent graduation rate in four years," said Harmony Learning Center principal Joe Richter. "But we look at that other 20 percent that isn't graduating. We need something different to help those students."

One method of redesigning the program would be creating in the high schools a new ninth/tenth grade alternative learning program focused on "intervening" with failing students earlier.

The 9/10 Interventions program would be designed to assist freshmen and sophomores before they need to move to the 11th/12th grade alternative learning program. Richter said this approach would help staff reach students who are off-track for graduation before it's too late.

"This would make our alternative learning programs more proactive rather than reactive and increase our overall graduation rate," Richter said.

Additionally, if approved, the alternative high school program for juniors and seniors would move from its current home at Harmony Learning Center to the North St. Paul Community Center.

The district's plans to lease the North St. Paul Community Center have fluctuated since the original proposal in August 2012. At the time, District 622 planned to use the space for its special education students.

In September, the school board approved moving forward with plans to lease 26,000 square feet of space in the community center for a period of 15 years. The city-owned building was going to be remodeled by the school district.

But at its Nov. 27 meeting, the board voted to rescind the tentative lease agreement, which had been submitted to the Minnesota Department of Education for official approval. The school board would not have been able to sign the lease until that approval was granted.

In a later interview, Dale Sundstrom, director of District 622 business services, said the previous lease terms in question stated that North St. Paul would have been able to continue city recreation programs in the late afternoons and evenings at no cost to the city.

However, district policy doesn't allow spending money on programs that are not directly school-related, including the city recreation programs in question.

The newly proposed lease does not permit the city to use the space for after-hours recreation programs, thus paving the way for the district to consider leasing the space once again.

If the school board approves the use of the community center, the lease will begin in March 2013 and be subject to renewal in 2015.

The community center is located at 2290 N. First St. in North St. Paul and has many amenities, including a gymnasium, walking and running track, access to personal trainers and interactive exercise equipment in the fitness center.

The Ramsey County Library North St. Paul branch is also located within the community center, and will remain in the building if the lease agreement is successful this time.

The district estimates the 2013-2014 cost of the lease, operation and furnishings to be about $226,000. This includes the construction of a new security entrance. For the 2014-2015 school year, the estimated cost would be approximately $223,000.

The funding would come from the savings of bringing special education students back to the district.

Changes proposed for Harmony

One of the proposed changes would bring special education students to the Harmony Learning Center in Maplewood.

With the alternative high school moving to the community center, Harmony, located at the corner of White Bear Avenue and County Road C, would have space for special education services.

The special education programs proposed to move to Harmony include Setting IV emotional behavior disorder (EBD) programs for middle school and high school students, and a therapeutic elementary education program for students with behavioral or emotional issues who need specialized support and instruction to prepare them for returning to their regular elementary school environment.

Currently, students with these learning needs are educated in programs in neighboring school districts, creating additional transportation and program costs. However, bringing them to a facility located within District 622 would save an estimated $1.2 million per year.

"Similar to how parents would pay tuition for a private school, the district pays 'tuition' for these students to be educated elsewhere," special services director Karon Joyer explained in a later interview. "There are a variety of factors that contribute to the cost of educating these students and tuition is one of the main ones."

There are approximately 45 students in kindergarten through 12th grade currently educated in EBD programs outside the district.

In addition to monetary savings, students, parents and staff would save commute time by traveling to a more centrally located facility.

The district estimates a cost of about $632,557 to make the facility operable for special education programs. This would cover an interior remodel and new furnishings.

Beaver Lake could see $4.5 million renovation

Another proposed district facility improvement would occur on the early childhood education level.

Administrators presented a plan to remodel, upgrade and expand Beaver Lake Education Center, located in a south Maplewood neighborhood, to better serve early childhood education students and create a family center.

"The district currently only serves about 20 percent of children (ages) 0-5 in our area," early childhood special education supervisor Ruth Paisley said. "With these expansions, we could bring that number up to 40 percent."

A series of renovations and enhancements beginning in summer 2013 could have the project completed by 2015.

Both the Beaver Lake facility and Gladstone Center currently house early childhood and family education programs. The proposed renovations to Beaver Lake Education Center would bring the services at both facilities together to better serve more students and families, administrators said.

The total cost of the project is estimated to be about $4.5 million over the next three years, which includes a partial demolition of the Beaver Lake facility this summer, the addition of a new entrance, a new temperature control system, and interior and exterior remodeling.

Administrators hope that by enhancing and expanding the district's early education programs and student capacity, there will be fewer failing students at the high school level in the future.

These proposed facility and program redesigns are tentatively on the agenda for the Feb. 26 school board meeting at 7 p.m. in the District Education Center in North St. Paul.

Johanna Holub can be reached at jholub@lillienews.com or 651-748-7814.

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