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District 833 moves forward on $4.5 million Liberty Ridge expansion

Just like its surrounding neighborhood, Liberty Ridge Elementary School is poised to grow.

The District 833 elementary school in Woodbury's Stonemill Farms development likely will be expanded following the South Washington County School Board's decision Dec. 15 to support the planned acquisition of a vacant commercial building across the street from the school.

The estimated $4.5 million project would include buying the commercial property and building a 12,500-square-foot addition. The district already leases space in the failed retail building, but administrators propose adding more space and making it home to the school's kindergarten classes. It would be known as Liberty Ridge Site 2. Grades 1-5 would continue to be taught in the main school building.

The main building is at capacity, said Rick Vogel, assistant to the superintendent for operations. Another 400 to 600 new homes are predicted for Stonemill Farms and within the Liberty Ridge attendance boundary. With that predicted population growth, school enrollment growth is expected to continue for the next several years, Vogel said. Expansion will allow the school to accommodate the forecasted growth through 2014.

The main building cannot be expanded because of the lot it sits on.

The district proposes to pay for the $4.5 million purchase and expansion with $450,000 left from the district's voter-approved bond referendum in 2006. The remaining portion would be financed over a 15-year term.

The board voted 6-1 in favor of the project.

Board member Ron Kath said it's a "unique opportunity" to increase capacity at the school. When voters approved the 2006 levy, it was about the need to expand schools in a growing district, he said.

"I can connect the dots when it comes to using those funds for this project," he said.

Board members also wanted to avoid having to redraw Liberty Ridge's attendance boundaries and telling parents their children would have to go to a different school. The expansion means no students will be routed to other schools.

Altering attendance lines is "very detrimental to families," board member David Kemper said.

"I don't want to do another boundary change and move another 200 kids," he said.

The district should have changed the Liberty Ridge attendance boundaries and sent some of those students to other surrounding elementary schools where there are empty desks, said board member Jim Gelbmann, who cast the only vote against the project.

"I just can't justify spending $4.5 million to avoid (what) is inevitably going to have to happen in this district, and that is to transport students from their home neighborhoods to where the schools are located," he said.

Liberty Ridge is the district's only elementary school at enrollment capacity, according to Vogel.

Superintendent Mark Porter said the building expansion is more than a short-term solution because the district will have use for Site 2 in the future. Also, he said, it makes sense to purchase the building rather than continue to pay a lease.

The board's approval will allow district administrators to negotiate a purchase with the building owner and begin design work on the expansion. Construction is estimated to begin next spring and be complete before the beginning of the fall 2012 school year.

Scott Wente

Scott Wente has been editor at the South Washington County Bulletin since 2011. He worked as a reporter at other Forum Communications newspapers from 2003 to 2011.

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