From spring of 2016 to August 2019, the schools across the Forest Lake Area School District have been receiving a fresh coat of paint — and a lot more than that.
In November 2015, district voters approved a bond referendum for $143 million that would improve facilities by making buildings more energy efficient; updating structures and classrooms; improving security and safety; and updating science, technology, and engineering facilities. For schools across the district, that meant air cooling and quality updates, heating systems through more efficient low-pressure hot water systems. It also meant adding secure entrances to the buildings, updated layouts of classrooms and offices, and for the high school and middle school, expansion projects, which added almost 190,000 square feet district-wide.
This August will mark the completion of the nearly four-year project both “on time and on budget.” It’s a phrase that the school district’s business director Larry Martini has repeated countless times as elementary schools across the district received much-needed upgrades and as the reorganization of the secondary grades at the middle school and the high school took place.
“We had really good people,” Martini said. “From [contractors] Kraus-Anderson and ICS [Consulting] to the in-district staff and all of the head custodians. I’m really proud of the work, and we all share that pride.”
Now at the end of the project, Martini said that there will be approximately $100,000 left from the bond, which will likely be saved and utilized for the last piece of the district’s facilities plan: the demolition of the Community Learning Center next summer. Currently, the district plans to save a portion of the middle of the building for the district’s Secondary Transition Education Program, which now leases space from rental company Gaughan.
Those previously housed in the Community Learning Center recently moved into the Forest Lake Education Center, the former site of Southwest Junior High School. Southwest and Century Junior High Schools were merged into the newly renovated Century building to create Forest Lake Middle School. The Forest Lake Education Center also houses the Forest Lake Area Community School, previously known the Adult Learning Center, and the district’s early childhood education program. The building was renovated to better accommodate those facilities, adding upgrades to help teachers work well in their spaces and jobs.
Special education coordinator Sara Heckel was impressed with the way the architects planned windowed walls and the implementation of different colored lighting for the sensory rooms.
“Just the thought that went into the walls and the layout of the room, that is a big deal,” Heckel said. It’ll be exciting to see how it plays out.”
As teachers, administrators and support staff moved into their classrooms and offices in the Forest Lake Education Building and Linwood and Wyoming elementary schools, there was a sense of joy and relief to be in facilities that matched their needs.
At Wyoming Elementary School, school nurse Jami Kenyon was happily shocked at the space of the new nurses office. Her former office, which she called “cramped,” was located in a corner by the front office desk. Now, roughly where Principal Curt Slater’s previous office used to be stands three beds near a door located right by an exit to the building. Kenyon said that the placement of the area near an exit will be much more helpful to parents coming to get their children, as kids can exit to a car right outside the office.
At Linwood Elementary School, where construction crews have been working for the last 18 months in one of the longest projects of the district, kindergarten teacher Tina Sparby marveled at the size of her new room as she set up her reading time mat on Monday, Aug. 26.
“This has been an incredible four-year journey where we’ve been able to address our many building needs through this project thanks to the community,” FLAS Superintendent Steve Massey said. “We’ve improved school security and safety, we’ve upgraded air quality through all schools, and updated significant learning spaces for kids that have a direct impact with our staff teach and how kids learn.”
While the completion of the bond project wraps up, the district is also seeing the first effects of its voter-approved per pupil levy increase through upgrades in teaching materials and the addition of almost 30 new positions across the district, both teaching and support staff.
“We have for so long saddled our teachers with limited resources, limited support, large class sizes, and we wonder why it’s hard to thrive on all cylinders and get the results we can get,” Massey said. He added that while the district is at the state average for reading and math scores, the addition of new instructional support staff aims to help drive curriculum updates and teacher support. “We know with good professional development and good resources that staff are supporting kids in learning and pushing kids in innovation, and that the sky is the limit. We will be a thriving district that we’ve envisioned.”
Massey said that during the campaigning process prior to the 2018 levy referendum, he posed the question of what the community values for the children of the area.
“They spoke to what they value, which is a strong education. It’s all about what we can give our young people in our community,” Massey said.
To thank the community, the district will be hosting an open house for the public later this fall.
“Hats off to our community,” Massey said. “I’m may be the superintendent, but these aren’t my schools; they belong to our community.”