Schools continue to build new spaces, add new students and leaders

One could describe the past year in the Lakeville Area School District in mathematical terms.

The past year saw voter approval to add a ninth elementary school, work to build additions at several elementary schools, along with adding a regionally competitive swimming pool, and a domed athletic field facility.

It saw some leaders resign to pursue new endeavors, and three new School Board members were added.

The district experienced subtraction in its projected enrollment early in the year, but it ended 2021 by adding more learners to reach the highest student count in the district’s history.

There was also division over masking requirements, distance learning decisions, and equity efforts.

Following are some of the district’s top news stories in the past year.

Bond referendum

District voters approved a bond referendum on May 11 to allow the district to issue $43.975 million in bonds that will pay for land and construction of a projected 750-student capacity ninth elementary school, along with equipment needed to run it.

The measure received 2,582 “yes” votes, and 2,255 “no” votes.

“We are incredibly grateful for our community’s support and understanding of our growth needs,” said Superintendent Michael Baumann in a statement. “While our students are the primary beneficiaries of this vote, our entire community benefits when our schools remain strong.”

The referendum request was in response to continued student and community growth, putting pressure on existing elementary school space, the district said.

The district entered into a purchase agreement in June to purchase a 35-acre site off Highview Avenue and a future extension of 185th Street for $3.5 million from John and Keli Friedges.

The site at 18685 Highview Ave., was one of 17 locations the district considered.

An open house in December allowed review of the design for the ninth elementary school.

The district said it hopes to start construction in spring 2022. The school is expected to be open in fall 2024.

The district said that while the total K-12 student enrollment is projected to grow more than 20% in the next decade, the elementary enrollment is projected to grow more than 20% in the next five years.

The 2021-22 academic year saw the opening of additions at Eastview, JFK and Christina Huddleston elementary schools to accommodate projected student enrollment growth and position the district for any possible expansion of prekindergarten offerings.

New board members

The Lakeville Area School Board added three members in 2021, each taking a different path to the board.

David Anderson was elected, along with incumbents Judy Keliher and Terry Lind, after the November 2020 election.

Anderson focused his campaign on fiscal responsibility, equipping students with evolving skills needed for future career-readiness and embracing diversity and inclusion.

Anderson, an attorney and the father to two sons, had previously served on the district’s Special Education Advisory Council (chair), Long-term Facility Task Force, and Equity Advisory Committee. He’s also been a Scout leader and church youth ministries leader.

Cinta Schmitz, a mother of four and community volunteer, won the district’s special election on Nov. 2 to fill a School Board vacancy created after Zach Duckworth was elected to the Minnesota Senate in 2020.

Schmitz’s campaign focused on bringing the concerns of parents to the board, along with a focus on core curriculum subjects, raising state test scores, and addressing the achievement gap.

Schmitz won the election with 5,974 votes, while Carly Anderson was second with 5,793 votes. Third and fourth place went to Edward Reuben Spinner with 121 votes and Diane Wolden with 107 votes, respectively.

The School Board appointed Robin Richards to the board’s vacant sixth seat during its Nov. 23 regular meeting by a 3-1 vote.

The seat was vacated by the resignation of Lynn Gorski in August after she was hired as assistant city manager in Farmington.

“It’s my decision to fully devote my time and energy to my career advancement, which led me to this difficult decision,” said Gorski, who was serving in the third year of her elected term.

Richards gained the most support among board members after Nov. 17’s eight candidate interviews that Schmitz participated in during her first day in office.

During the board’s Nov. 17 discussion of candidates, it advanced two finalists to be considered – Richards and Carly Anderson. Richards had the support of all board members as a finalist, while they were not unanimous in support of Carly Anderson.

Richards is a health coach. She was a public school administrator and teacher on special assignment in St. Paul Public Schools from 2013-17, according to the district. She was also a math teacher and curricular coach in Chaska and Las Vegas, Nevada.

There were eight interviewed by the five-member board from a pool of 14 who submitted applications by the Nov. 12 deadline.

The other candidates for the vacant seat were Kelly Detlefsen, Lisa Backer, Kimberly Baker, Jay Escobar, Sarah Lofgren and Sarah Welcome.

Richards will join the board in January 2022, which would bring the board back to full membership for the first time since the beginning of 2021.

Richards and Schmitz both have seats that will have terms expiring at the end of 2022.

Those two seats will be on the ballot along with a seventh seat added after voters approved the measure during the Nov. 2 election.

Voters cast 8,147 or 68.86% of votes in favor of adding a seventh seat, while 3,684 or 31.14% voted against it.

The School Board approved by a 3-2 vote in August putting the question to voters after some residents advocated for adding a seventh member in order to avoid tie votes, as happened several times in 2020 when the board was deadlocked on the treasurer’s appointment.

Baumann to retire

District 194 Superintendent Michael Baumann said in September he will retire at the end of the 2021-22 school year after working eight years for the district.

“It has been an honor to serve the students, staff and families of Lakeville Area Schools,” Baumann said in a press release. “Lakeville is an amazing community with the very best people working in the school system. It’s been a great privilege to serve this district as superintendent.”

Baumann’s K-12 education retirement of 17 years follows his 20-year career and retirement from the U.S. Army.

In 2013, Baumann was hired by Lakeville Area Schools as the executive director of business services. He was hired as superintendent in April 2017 as a unanimous pick by the School Board.

During his Lakeville Area Schools superintendency, Baumann guided the district through its strategic plan, long-term facilities and security plan, and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Baumann’s retirement is effective June 30, 2022. The School Board has started the process to search for the district’s next superintendent.

Distance learning, masks

Lakeville Area Schools were on a COVID-19 roller coaster at the end of the 2020-2021 academic year, and the difficult ride continued into the new school year.

After elementary school students went back to full-time in-person learning starting late January after a November 2020 spike in Dakota County COVID-19 cases subsided, but in February and March three elementary schools had to move to distance learning due to outbreaks.

Middle schools were moved back to in-person learning on March 22 and high schools were added on April 6.

Following a spike in cases after spring break, the district decided on April 15 to temporarily close Century, Kenwood Trail and McGuire middle schools and had full-time distance learning for the next three weeks.

This was because of increased confirmed cases of COVID-19, student quarantine counts, and the limited ability for the middle school level to adequately meet the significant distance learning needs for quarantined students, the district said.

After making an announcement that high school seniors would move to distance learning the final two weeks of the school year, the district modified the plan to make in-person attendance for seniors optional.

The initial decision was made in an effort to reduce the risk of seniors getting sick from COVID-19 or having to quarantine due to exposure and miss the graduation ceremony.

It worked out in the end as in-person ceremonies were held June 10 for Lakeville South and Lakeville North at 3M Arena at Mariucci on the University of Minnesota campus. The district has held the ceremonies at Mariucci for several years prior to the 2020 commencement, which was held online.

The district returned to full in-person learning at the start of the school year on Sept. 8, but with a mask mandate for those ages 2 through grade 8. Mask wearing was strongly recommended for students and staff in grades 9-12.

The mask rules were based on the district’s Safe Return to Learning Plan, which tracks the 14-day new COVID-19 case rate per 10,000 residents in Dakota County.

The rate went over 30 in September, which triggered the mask rule for younger students.

The district didn’t require high schools to wear masks since all students in grades 9-12 were eligible for COVID-19 vaccinations.

Baumann said the district is prioritizing strategies to keep students in school and in the classroom learning with their teacher, mitigating transmission, considering the whole child and their learning, being responsive to change with COVID-19 virus transmission locally and vaccinations across the county.

It wasn’t until late October that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration granted emergency use authorization for a Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for ages 5-11.

The School Board has received feedback in opposition to the masking rules, including during the Nov. 9 meeting, from many parents and students.

As new COVID-19 cases rose in Dakota County more than 50 per 10,000 residents, students and staff in all grades were required to wear masks, regardless of vaccination status starting Nov. 11.

The 14-day case rate in Dakota County was 93.7 as of Dec. 20.

Bomb threats

The Lakeville Area School District closed all of its buildings on two separate ocassions on May 20 and Dec. 17 after it received threatening messages.

Lakeville Police recommended charges in September against a Lakeville area juvenile who allegedly made the May 20 bomb threat. The suggested charge of threats of violence (threatens explosive device) has a maximum sentence of three years in prison and/or a $3,000 fine.

The threat was allegedly emailed to several Lakeville South High School staff members who received the messages in the early morning hours of May 21.

After in-person classes were canceled for the day, several law enforcement agencies checked several school buildings for explosives, the buildings were cleared, and the threat was deemed to be a hoax.

With the assistance of the Europe Division of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Lakeville Police investigators were provided with internet protocol address, which led detectives to the residence where the device used to send the threat was located.

A social media threat via TikTok specific to the district led to the Dec. 17 closure amid the news of a nationwide “challenge” issued on TikTok to threaten schools.

“We take any threat to school safety seriously and worked aggressively with the Lakeville Police Department to investigate the threat throughout the night and determine its credibility,” District 194 reported. “Despite those efforts, this investigation remains active.”

According to media reports, more than a dozen boys ranging in age from 13 to 16 were arrested in Minnesota, California, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Maryland, Ohio, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Texas and Wisconsin related to the “challenge.”

District 194 said it thanked everyone who promptly reported the threat using its anonymous reporting tool so the district’s threat assessment team and law enforcement could get to work immediately.

Division over signs

A group of Lakeville Area School District residents filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court on Aug. 6 alleging that District 194 violated First Amendment rights to free speech, was discriminatory in its practices and violated the district’s own policy regarding political activities.

The complaint outlined issues residents have been communicating through sometimes heated public comment sessions, emails and phone calls to district officials and School Board members for the past several months.

The complaint says that District 194’s Inclusive Poster Series, which includes two that say “Black Lives Matter,” violates the district’s Policy 535 regarding Political Campaigns and Activities. They say the two posters should not be allowed since District 194 banned the display of Black Lives Matter signs in a policy interpretation on Sept. 22, 2020.

The lawsuit notes that the two posters, which were approved by the School Board on April 13, went through a review process and were requested by many district staff and families, also states: “At Lakeville Area Schools we believe Black Lives Matter and stand with the social justice movement this statement represents. This poster is aligned to School Board policy and an unwavering commitment to our Black students, staff and community members.”

The district said in a statement on Tuesday with regard to the lawsuit: “While we have not yet been served a complaint, it is our understanding that one was filed in United States District Court on August 6, 2021. We disagree with the claims made against Lakeville Area Schools and believe there is no legal basis for them.

“At Lakeville Area Schools we strive to ensure the success of each and every student in our school community. We believe that each and every student has a state constitutional right to a public education that is equal, equitable and free of racism and harassment. We welcome all students and all perspectives. We are committed to creating inclusive and affirming school communities where every student experiences a strong sense of belonging and feels valued.”

Aquatic Center

Construction progressed in 2021 for a new pool attached to Century Middle School, which officially earned the name “Lakeville Area Schools Blanchard Aquatic Center” after a donation of $250,000 was accepted in March from longtime Lakeville residents and business owners Jay and Sue Blanchard.

The $15.9 million pool will have $300,000 in upgrades added to it based on donations from the Blanchards, owners of Lakeville company Safety Signs; a $25,000 donation from Kent and Paula Peterson, and $25,000 from the Lakeville Swim Booster Club. The Buy A Seat Fundraiser also exceeded its 468-seat goal by April 30 raising nearly $50,000 and unlocking an additional $50,000 matching donation from the Blanchards.

“The pool that is being built is worth waiting for,” said longtime Lakeville swim coach Rick Ringeisen, who was Jay Blanchard’s high school swim coach. “The venue will be known across the state as the finest pool for both competition and for being a spectator.”

Among the items the donation and other fundraising will support are items such as a video board upgrade, endless pool, 3-meter diving board, seats (upgrade from bleachers), glass railings, food and beverage ledge and finish concession booth.

District 194 currently has a swimming pool at Kenwood Trail Middle School and a diving well at McGuire Middle School. The Lakeville North and Lakeville South swimming teams typically practice together, but trade off use of the sites for competitions.

The Aquatic Center was slated to open in January 2022.

Dome raised

The Lakeville Area School Board approved on a 3-2 vote during its April 20 meeting an agreement with the private Dome Partners LLC to place a sports field dome at Lakeville North High School that was slated to open Jan. 3, 2022, and an exclusive one-year right to raise a second dome at Lakeville South.

Board members Judy Keliher, Kathy Lewis and Lynn Gorski voted yes, and board members Terry Lind and Dave Anderson voted no.

During its April 20 work session, Lind and Anderson, who both said they see the need for a dome, were concerned about the one-year exclusive right for a second dome at South.

Lewis said: “I think it’s going to be absolutely invaluable” for youth sports and other community groups.

An initial Dome Partners agreement was introduced in February 2019 and the board resumed discussions at the March 16, 2021, meeting.

The dome at Lakeville North will have an equal use agreement for teams associated with both Lakeville North and Lakeville South high schools.

Dome Partners will pay for all costs related to the dome materials, construction and management while the dome is installed and raised each year.

Lawsuit settlement

The Lakeville Area School District has reached a settlement in February with the family of a student who suffered a brain injury following an asthma attack at her McGuire Middle School.

The family of Aaliyah Bowen blamed a school nurse who administered an inhaler for the girl’s asthma in April 2019 and then sent her back to gym class.

The lawsuit said Bowen lost consciousness and was without oxygen for 30 minutes, the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported.

“Because of Defendants’ failures, (Bowen) will likely remain in a vegetative state for the rest of her life,” her family’s attorney, Richard Student, wrote in an October 2019 court filing.

Terms of the settlement were not disclosed because the agreement is under court seal.

Bowen’s family sought monetary damages in excess of $10 million from the district, according to the original court filing.

Former principal dies

Former Century Middle School principal Christopher Jerome Endicott was found dead in the Crow Wing County jail on Nov. 20.

The 53-year-old former Apple Valley man had previously been sentenced in 2019 to prison for identity theft, stalking and burglary, but was released from prison in November 2021 as part of a program that allows inmates to live in the community under supervision.

He was back in custody on a Minnesota Department of Corrections warrant.

Efforts to save his life after he was found unresponsive by jail staff were unsuccessful.

Tad Johnson is a managing editor of Sun Thisweek and the Dakota County Tribune 

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