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School board: 'Future is bright' for Mitchell School District

(Daily Republic illustration)

Standing tall and pristine, the recently completed performing arts center overshadows its neighboring buildings — including the Mitchell Senior High School.

More than two months ago, the $15.3 million fine arts facility was packed with school and community members celebrating its much anticipated opening. It was a project several years in the making, and members of the Mitchell Board of Education, along with administrators, oversaw each fine detail of its construction.

It was built to address a need. A need for the band and choir students to have more practice space, additional classrooms and a large theater to perform in. And the Mitchell School District delivered.

Connected to the Mitchell Career and Technical Education Academy, the 66,740-square-foot space features a 1,227-seat theater with three balconies, multiple practice rooms, storage space and a black box theater.

It impressed many with it's large windows, enormous theater and vast space during its official opening in April. But since then many community members have begun to ask, "What's next?"

Thoughts immediately turn to the performing arts center's neighboring school building, the Mitchell Senior High School, which dulls in comparison.

The 55-year-old building has seen better days, and many are questioning when a new one will be built. But for Mitchell Board of Education members, a new high school is not on their agenda.

While it's a project they all agree is necessary and is in the district's distant future, it'll be several years before any major progress will be complete.

Board member Kevin Kenkel was hesitant to nail down a specific date when the high school should be replaced, but he said a new high school is something worth considering.

"At some time, we will need to do something with the high school, either seriously renovate it or a new high school. Being financially prepared for that will be important," said Kenkel, who is finishing his second year on the Mitchell Board of Education.

And the school district is already taking financial steps for the future high school. On Monday, during the school board's regularly scheduled meeting, Business Manager Steve Culhane led a review of the 2017-18 budget for the Mitchell School District.

Culhane reported that within the capital outlay fund, the reserves are projected to be around $600,000 this year. He added that the district is working to build up this reserve fund each year to finance the construction of a new high school in future years.

That construction is at least 10 to 15 years away, according to Lacey Musick, who was appointed to the board in 2014 and re-elected in 2015. But the condition of the high school isn't an "emergency situation," Musick said.

"I would say 10 years is realistic because we want to make sure we're doing it correctly and we have the funds to do it ..." Musick said. "It's an aging building, just like any building in town, so we want to make sure we stay at the forefront so when it needs to be done, we don't have the building in shambles."

'Educating our students'

While a new high school sits on the backburner, financial stability remains a top priority for each school board member.

Matthew Christiansen was recently elected for a three-year term on the board, and he's made it a goal to have an adaptable and flexible approach when it comes to money. Although the high school project is at least 10 years down the road, Christiansen said, the board and administrators might not know what else they need to respond to in the next two to five years.

"Being prepared financially, and being able to have a conversation with the community about what those needs are, will guide those shorter term changes ..." Christiansen said. "I don't really come in with a big project to get done, my main goal is to maintain the momentum we have for preparing our kids for what comes after they graduate."

And Kenkel agreed, adding that the school district is about "educating our students." Kenkel said it's important for the district to assess the effectiveness of new programs, monitoring how students are doing.

"We can talk about buildings, spending money on capital projects, or we can talk about improving student achievement and learning," Kenkel said. "To repeat, I want to make sure we're focusing on the core of what we are about, which is student achievement and student learning and preparing our students for careers and a meaningful life."

For Neil Putnam, vice president of the Mitchell Board of Education and member for nearly 17 years, the completion of the performing arts center is one of many capital outlay projects he's overseen.

This includes improvements at Joe Quintal Field, transitioning the former Mitchell Technical Institute building into MCTEA and the upgrades of Longfellow Elementary School.

But there's one major change Putnam has noticed in his tenure that's making a big impact on the school district: technology.

And while Putnam agrees a new high school is in the works for the next 10 to 12 years, he said keeping up with the changing technology will be very important in the next few years.

"That's the way people work now days, kids have to be prepared for technology," Putnam said. "That does seem to be the trend and adjusting to the way kids are taught and the way they learn."

And the school board is proud of the steps already taken to be more innovative. The district implemented 1:1 technology for all students, K-12. This initiative provides a device to each student within the school district.

Deb Olson, who is in her fourth year on the board and also serves as president, is very proud of this implementation, and said it doesn't stop there. Olson said it's the board's responsibility to keep up with the latest trends, and predicting what the school district might need in the future is a difficult task.

"The world of education has changed so much, so rapidly that as I try to imagine what's the next thing, it's hard to predict ..." Olson said. "The one thing that I would want and I would desire is that we continue to have and hire and retain the best teachers. That's always key."

What's on the radar?

In 2009, Focus 2020 — a long term community planning initiative — was formed. One group established under this community team studied education in Mitchell, including the K-12 school district.

Within the report, which was filed on April 8, 2009, the committee recognized that two facilities were in "great need" of upgrade or replacement. These two facilities were the Mitchell Senior High School and Joe Quintal Field.

"The MHS building simply does not reflect a progressive, positive image, nor does it demonstrate the importance of education in Mitchell," the report states.

While the school district has only taken small steps toward a new high school, it has taken much larger steps at Joe Quintal Field.

The stadium itself dates back to 1941, and after years of heavy use, the district invested $2.9 million for upgrades in 2010, including new locker rooms, goalposts, visitors' bleachers, a press box and entranceway.

And upgrades continue.

In February this year, the board approved funding for a new field turf system. The funding was an enhanced lease agreement with Dakota Wesleyan University at $400,000. But this is just one of three sources of funding for the new turf, which the district would like to install by summer 2018. The project also includes replacing the current track, which has reached its expected lifespan. The entire project will cost approximately $1.2 million.

The other two funding sources include $400,000 through the district's capital outlay fund as well as eight private donations of $50,000 each, totalling $400,000. Administrators, including Culhane, Activities Director Cory Aadland and Superintendent Joe Graves, are working on securing the private donations.

Musick said securing these funds is the "main thing on the radar" of the school board right now, with the high school construction being the next large project, despite it still looming years down the road.

But for the next few years, board members Musick and Putnam both agree minor maintenance and upkeep of all the district's building will be on the agenda, and making sure the students have a good environment to succeed in.

"There's a lot of things that could happen. Obviously, just maintaining and making sure our buildings are updated and getting technology is the key," Putnam said. "Also keeping an eye on any growth, and we may have to make some adjustments."

Putnam also serves on the National School Boards Association (NSBA), a gig he's had since 2013. With the NSBA, Putnam is one of three directors of the western region, which oversees nine states. And through this association, Putnam has been able to see how Mitchell compares on a national scale.

And, according to Putnam, the Mitchell School District is doing well, staying flexible and innovative with technology, new policies and overall excellence.

And it's all because of the parents, community and school staff in Mitchell, he said.

"Our future is bright," Putnam said. "Our parents are very engaged, and our community is very supportive of our district ... I can't tell you how many times I've been at various state and national functions and hear of other things happening in other school districts. Then I come back home, and I think, 'Yeah we're doing that, too. We're pretty innovative. We're ahead of the game.' "