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Thoughtfully Proactive: How Long-Range Planning Provides School Districts with Community Consensus and More in Minnesota and Wisconsin

Thoughtful long-range planning plays a vital role in making proactive and impactful changes over an extended period of time with full community support. Long-range planning helps align school districts’ long-term goals and develop action plans that provide smaller and more achievable steps to reach their ultimate objectives. Plans can range from a few years to a few decades into the future and help guide decision-making, budget planning and short-term projects along the way.

When involved early in the process, the Wold team can provide guidance and recommendations throughout, engaging stakeholders and users to ensure all voices are heard, and our in-house engineering team allows for comprehensive feedback on all current facilities upgrades considered in the long-range plan. We ensure that all educational spaces, no matter how old or outdated, are reimagined and retrofitted to accommodate and sustain districts’ innovative visions and new methods of teaching for decades to come.

Continuing our long-range planning series across all of our offices, our Minnesota team sat down with partners and educational leaders Jeff Elstad, superintendent at Owatonna Public Schools (ISD 761) in Minnesota, Tim Widiker, superintendent at St. Croix Central School District (SCCSD) in Wisconsin, and Dr. Daniel Bittman, superintendent at Independent School District 728 (ISD 728) in Minnesota, to reflect on the long-range planning process, the best methods to gain community consensus and each district’s experience working with Wold.

Read below for their insights.

Tell us about your district and community. What makes your district different and/or special?

Jeff Elstad from ISD 761: The Owatonna school district is centrally located in the city of Owatonna, Minnesota. While it’s a Twin Cities metro area, it’s still a smaller community with about 27,000 people. We only have one high school, but it’s a great sense of community pride. We’re very lucky to have great support for our schools, which serve about 5,000 students, including a robust online program.

Tim Widiker from SCCSD:
St. Croix Central School District serves about 1,670 students in person and 325 in our virtual academy. It sounds cliche, but the relationships and culture truly make our district special. We are large enough to offer a variety of programs and opportunities for our kids, but small enough to keep the relationships tight-knit and strong. Our staff knows all of our students, and our students know all of our staff.

Dr. Daniel Bittman from ISD 728:
Independent School District 728 is the eighth-largest school district in Minnesota located 35 miles northwest of Minneapolis with 10 elementary schools, 6 middle schools and 4 high schools. We proudly serve nearly 14,000 neighborhood students and more than 50,000 total lifelong learners. In addition to outstanding student achievement, our local, state and national recognitions for our academic, operational, and partnership excellence make us a premier district. Our ability to attract and retain amazingly talented staff and administration, continued enrollment growth and success in the fine arts, core academic areas and athletics/activities all help set us apart.

What challenges has your district faced when thinking about the future of its facilities?

Jeff Elstad from ISD 761: Helping the community understand the need to make consistent investments to keep our facilities up to date, in particular with the high school. It has taken several efforts to garner enough support to get our high school project funded over the course of about 20 years.

Dr. Daniel Bittman from ISD 728:
We continue to grow significantly from year to year and have added two new buildings in the last six years, with more to come. Keeping facilities equitable and relevant for students, staff and community members can be a challenge when serving people from five different counties and with limited resources.

Tell us about your long-range planning project with our team. What was the process like? How would you describe Wold’s partnership throughout this journey?

Jeff Elstad from ISD 761: Wold was originally hired in 2014 to help address our high school, but the long-range planning process identified urgent elementary and middle school needs as the priority. A two-referendum strategy was created, which set the district up to have more than $200 million in needs addressed over 10 years. Wold facilitated a task force to help the community address options to develop consensus and create ownership, without leading or directing the outcome. The community was able to understand the pros and cons of each option and see the advantages of investments in the K-8 environments, which built trust and awareness to tackle the high school needs as a second step. Wold’s willingness to be present and involved throughout the entire process, whenever anything was needed, made a huge difference to both our district and the community.

Tim Widiker from SCCSD:
The long-range planning process with Wold was outstanding, and they were integral to our success. I am impressed with Wold’s ability to capture the things that make each organization unique and the many voices and ideas in a professional and friendly manner. Even when some stakeholder ideas were really far-fetched, the staff at Wold listened and considered those ideas in a way that didn’t upset anyone. People are the difference-makers, and I can’t stress how incredible the people at Wold are in the ultimate success of the planning process.

What are your 3 biggest takeaways/learnings from the long-range planning process?

Jeff Elstad from ISD 761: 1. People need to see the value in the long-range plan or project, which is different than the financial investment. 2. There is great value in community input, partnerships and task forces. 3. Prioritizing based on feedback and needs is key. Wold taught us that you can have one of anything, but not one of everything!

Dr. Daniel Bittman from ISD 728:
1. We are better together! 2. Wold has the experience and knowledge to help ensure school districts are making the right decisions for their students, families and communities. 3. The Wold team remains available at all times to answer questions, provide guidance and communicate progress.

In the planning process, has school replacement vs. renovation been a decision that you’ve had to navigate? If so, what were some factors at play?

Jeff Elstad from ISD 761: Yes, we used a community task force to heavily weigh the benefits vs. drawbacks of investing in our current high school facility or constructing a new one. Some of the factors that were at play included cost, location, site size, future expandability, building condition and building ability to meet educational programming needs into the future.

Dr. Daniel Bittman from ISD 728:
We are in the process of considering replacement vs. renovation now as we look at our Area Learning Center (ALC), special education Level 4, and ETC buildings. There’s a lot to consider during this process, including the cost of replacement, usage of space, needs of the students, politics within the community, available funding and the will of the School Board.

Why should districts consider long-range planning vs short-term fixes?

Tim Widiker from SCCSD: Short-term fixes are not fiscally responsible and can even prohibit future facility options. They often “kick the can down the road” and end up costing constituents more money in the long run. A long-range plan can help properly allocate the funds and projects over time in a proactive, rather than reactive, way.

Dr. Daniel Bittman from ISD 728:
Without a clear vision and plan, a lot of time, energy and money will be spent on reacting. Nobody likes surprises, especially when repairs or maintenance can disrupt learning, budgets and leadership. A long-range plan allows school districts to plan thoughtfully so that students and learning can remain the priority.

Our team at Wold Architects and Engineers is happy to be a resource to districts looking to proactively prepare and reach their goals through long-range planning. We understand it’s imperative that this is a collaborative process, and our expertise in engaging stakeholders and community members creates an inclusive, diverse experience to ensure needs are met and funding is available for many years to come. There is no one-size-fits-all for long-range planning solutions; instead, we integrate our holistic expertise with districts’ visions and values to produce a living document that includes short- and long-term solutions.

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