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Parents want their school treated like the others

Public Montessori moms and dads filled the audience chairs at the River Falls High School Library Monday night, Aug. 18, and delivered a clear message to the school board:

--Montessori enrollment has grown yearly and is nearing 200; treat us equally as the district’s fourth elementary school; pick the expansion plan that seems cheaper and keeps our students and staff more connected.

Monday’s school board agenda returned to the River Falls Academy saga and the fate of two key programs: Montessori (elementary-age students), and Renaissance (alternative high school).

A week earlier the school board’s Business Affairs Committee recommended adding modular (portable) classrooms to form a wing on the Academy’s west side by the playground.

This would give the Montessori program more classroom space, which it needs. But most Montessori parents apparently oppose this plan.

They were also upset that the recommendation came after the Business Affairs Committee emerged from closed session. There, committee members had talked about negotiating a lease deal to relocate the Renaissance program in 2015-16.

The Academy, Renaissance and Montessori are all linked:

--School board members want to “mothball” the 1927 and 1949 portions of the Academy building after this school year. They say those portions are too old and costly to maintain, and that voters in a 2011 referendum soundly rejected spending millions on needed upgrades.

--A potential buyer of the Academy would convert it to rental housing, possibly leasing back the newest, 1990 section to the school district for $1 a year. The Montessori is now in the 1990 section but needs more room.

--The school board voted Monday night to ask district residents for permission to sell all or part of the Academy building at the Annual Meeting Monday, Sept. 22. Voter approval is needed before any public school building can be sold.

--The school board went into closed session after its regular Aug. 18 meeting to discuss a lease with Nash Finch to use the old YMCA in the Family Fresh building for Renaissance next year. Talk in closed session also was about the potential sale of the Academy to Wisconsin developer Gorman & Company.

Superintendent Jamie Benson was conciliatory before the large turnout of Montessori parents.

Benson said a future Montessori site, like Renaissance, has been analyzed for months and “we feel we’ve had a very transparent, collaborative relationship” with the many involved parents from both programs.

“We don’t want to diminish that trust,” Benson said. “We want to make sure parents feel their voices have been heard…We don’t want you to think we’ve fumbled the ball.”

Benson urged the school board to delay acting -- “take a timeout” --  on the Business Affairs Committee’s recommendation to add modular classrooms connected by a corridor to the Academy building.

Benson asked the board to agree to a special Business Affairs Committee meeting to focus on Montessori options at the Academy after next school year.

The school board unanimously acted on Benson’s advice.

It delayed a vote on the Montessori’s future plans and set a special Business Affairs Committee meeting on that topic for 8 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 27, at the Meyer Middle School library -- open to the public.

The two main options for expanding the Montessori are:

--Add portables to the west end green space of the Academy building next to the playground. Approximate cost: $920,460.

--Renovate the 1990s gym into classrooms and a computer lab. Approximate cost: $862,380.

Lauri Wilson summed up the Montessori parents’ position by asking the board to renovate the gym area on the first floor.

“We’re perfectly happy with the cheaper option…for $58,000 less,” she said. “As a taxpayer, I’m a little befuddled by the (modular) choice.”

For the complete story, see the Aug. 21 print issue of the River Falls Journal.