DMC drives school growth, too

April 2, 2019

To find evidence of a transforming city, you don’t have to look any farther than enrollment numbers at Rochester Public Schools.

Enrollment has steadily climbed in recent years — from 16,889 students in the 2013-2014 school year to more than 18,100 students this academic year.

“We’re excited about the growth we’ve seen and are going to see,” said Michael Muñoz, Rochester schools superintendent. “Of course, with growth, there come challenges.”

The challenges include some schools pushing and exceeding their capacity. For the 2018-2019 school year, 15 schools were above 90 percent of their capacity. Five of those schools — Elton Hills, Franklin, Gage, Jefferson and Washington elementary schools — were above 100 percent capacity for the school year.

However, the steady growth has made planning to meet it easier.

“In my opinion, it’s a manageable growth,” Muñoz said. “It’s growth you can plan for and wrap your arms around.”

Bond referendum

The school district will bring a two-question bond referendum before voters this fall. The referendum asks for support for $163 million in new buildings and improvements to existing schools and a $9.5 million question to build a competition pool at Century High School.

District officials and a facilities task force reviewed housing construction over the last few years and looked at how much and where more housing will likely be built. The task force suggested $124 million in new school construction to the board. The group suggested buying land in the city’s southwest quadrant, building a new middle school there, building a new, 720-student capacity elementary school in the northwest quadrant and rebuilding Longfellow and Bishop elementary schools to 720-student capacity schools.

The school board took the next step, voting in March to authorize the district to purchase 150 acres of land for $2.9 million in the city’s southwest quadrant. The land would have space for an elementary school, middle school and high school. The purchase is contingent on voter approval.

For the past 20 years, the school district has grown by about 200 to 300 students per year, Muñoz said. That steady growth has made it easier for the district to plan to meet facility needs, he added.

“We’re not seeing a jump of 1,000 new students in a year,” Muñoz said.

However, even the plans outlined in the referendum are years away.

“Those buildings won’t open until 2022,” said John Carlson, district executive director of finance.

4th public high school

Projections show the district will likely need another high school in about 10 years, officials said. That would likely be built on the 150-acre property in southwest Rochester.

One downside of the growth is that construction costs and land costs here have increased faster than the national average as more projects get underway.

“A few years ago, we could build something a bit cheaper than now,” Muñoz said. That fact alone inflated the dollar figure the district will put to the voters.

“We had to build in those costs.” he said.

Critics have said DMC should invest in the schools since it’s driving costs.

Muñoz said Mayo Clinic does assist the district in multiple ways. He pointed to district programs that benefit from Mayo as a partner or funder. Among those: Project Search, which helps students with cognitive disabilities find employment; a CNA program; the bridges to healthcare program and the recently opened clinic at the Alternative Learning Center.

“They are contributing,” Muñoz said. “Are we writing a big press release with them passing a big check? No.

“They are a big partner and they contribute a lot to the school system,” he said.

DMC doesn’t just mean population growth for the district. As DMC invests in infrastructure and amenities, the school district is working to help various sectors and industries meet their workforce needs.

“If you look at the job needs in Southeast Minnesota, they’re not just in health care,” Muñoz said.