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Wanted: Focus group participants

Jamie Benson is the River Falls School District superintendent 

The School District of River Falls is in many ways the center of our community's life together.

Your children and grandkids attend our schools; community groups regularly use our buildings; you come to our schools for sporting events, concerts, and plays; and many adults attend our community education programs. Our students also go out into the community for learning and service projects, to visit nursing homes, and spend time with veterans. The many connections between the school district and the community strengthen all of us.

River Falls has long valued public education. In 1854 the first public school was built in River Falls. Two years later the one and only college prep school (high school) was built and became known as the River Falls Academy.

Much has changed in the community and in education since 1854. School buildings were added or expanded to meet the growth of our community and an increasing number of students needing to be served. Schools began to teach more than just reading, writing, and arithmetic; subjects such as industrial arts, physical education, and family/domestic courses were added, all requiring more and different spaces.

In 1927 a new Academy School building opened; additions were added in 1949 and again later in 1991. Currently the 1940's and 1990's sections of the Academy serve our 180 public Montessori charter school students pre-Kindergarten through sixth grade. Two years ago, the school board made the difficult decision to shutter the 1920's portion of the Academy building to save on repair and operating costs. Now at nearly 70 years old, the 1949 section has reached the end of its usefulness to 21st century education. This reality leaves the school board and the community at a crossroads regarding what to do with this portion of the building.

In addition to the need to make some decisions on the old sections of the Academy building (1920's and 40's), our school board is following the direction of 80 community members who developed our current strategic planning framework. That plan calls for district-wide facility planning. The school board and administration have done a lot of information gathering about our district facilities.

Just as our school buildings have changed over the years to accommodate new students and programs, we need to do the same. Now is our time to make changes to our facilities for the future—to upgrade all of our facilities, make decisions regarding the Academy building, and make sure our buildings can effectively support education in the coming years.

The School District of River Falls, innovative leader in personalized learning, ensures the development of every student's unique potential in order to excel as responsible, productive, global citizens, facilitated by forward-thinking staff in a safe, nurturing, and collaborative environment.

To be clear, our school board is dedicated to keeping the Montessori school on its present site.

This means that River Falls will continue to have a school on the corner of Maple and Fremont streets, just has it has since 1854.

Other district-wide "master facility plan" decisions will include addressing building infrastructure that has exceeded its useful life and simply costs too much for the district to pay for out of its limited annual budgets. Additionally, enrollment/capacity issues are becoming very tight at our elementary schools—we need to add a few more classrooms as we responsibly plan for future enrollment growth.

Today, more than ever before, we have more advanced course offerings, special education programming, technology advancements, other programmatic changes, and overall educational adequacy/space needs at all of our schools. Other improvements will be needed with our high school auditorium (lighting and sound system is 17 years old) and our outdoor athletic facilities (track, band practice field, soccer, football, tennis, etc.). Roofs are aging and some parking lot need repair.

So, what does this mean? We are looking at the possibility of holding an April 2018 referendum to ask the community to support making these improvements. Noteworthy, the really good news is that our district will retire some of our existing debt which would allow our community to consider supporting a referendum while having a nominal impact on property taxes. Timing is right and the needs exist—our time has come.

Before the board determines "what" to include in an April referendum, they will first conduct a formal community survey to seek your opinions and level of support for facility improvements.

The survey will be mailed to all homes and can either be completed by hard-copy (paper+pencil) or with an online computer option.

Before we send the survey, we are inviting the public to attend one of our Focus group meetings.

During these meetings we will provide more facility related information but more importantly, we will listen to your input and adapt our survey to include the Focus group feedback.

Please consider attending one of the following Focus group sessions at our District Office conference room located at 852 E. Division St.:

• 7 a.m., noon or 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 14

• 6:30 p.m. Monday, Sept. 18

We look forward to your input as we continue serving the students and community of River Falls.