Playground progressing; August build planned; kindergarten numbers show three sections again

by Tom Coombe -

If all goes as planned, a new playground at Washington Elementary School will be ready in time for the next school year.
Combined with continuing fundraising efforts, an infusion of $100,000 of school district funds has all but assured that the project planned for the west side of the district campus - on part of the area where the JFK building once sat - will proceed.
“Our goal is for an August community build,” said Anne Oelke, principal at Washington Elementary.
School board action earlier this year secured two-thirds of the funds needed for the project, and an earlier fund drive generated about $35,000.
Donations continue to be collected and elementary students are planning a running-themed fundraiser at the end of the month.
“All of our efforts with funding and the ‘kid ideas’ have been super successful,” said Oelke.
A 15-member playground team that includes parents, school staff and community members has received renderings from a Delano firm, and Oelke indicated that the play area amenities were selected with the help of Ely students via various brainstorming sessions.
For years, the arena parking lot has doubled as an elementary playground during the school day, and Oelke has pressed for the district to come up with a better option to provide play and recess time for students in kindergarten through fifth grade
Plans call for the purchase and installation of new playground equipment, the designation of free grass space for free play and football, and the creation of asphalt space for basketball, four square, hopskotch and other activities.
School officials have settled on the JFK area, throwing plans for a possible recreation center complex at the same location for a possible loop. Recreation center boosters are now eying an area closer to the district ice arena, also on the west side of the district campus, with formal plans to be released perhaps as soon as the school board’s Apr. 24 study session.
Kindergarten enrollment steady: three sections
A slight rebound in enrollment in the Ely district could continue next fall, if kindergarten class projections are accurate.
Oelke briefed school board members Monday and indicated that 51 students are expected in the 2017-18 kindergarten group.
That’s more than enough to ensure that the district will again offer three kindergarten sections, according to Oelke.
If enrollment mirrors this year, it may also result in a larger kindergarten class than initially projected.
A year ago, the district expected “48-52” kindergarten students this year, but that number has since grown to 61.
Oelke also reported a late bump in enrollment in the Ely district, with nine students entering Washington Elementary in the last two weeks, including four in third grade.
No verdict yet on pitch to fund skiing, track
It will be another month before school board members vote whether to fund the high school’s Nordic skiing and boys and girls track teams.
Skiing has operated with private funding ever since its inception in 1999, while the track teams have been supported by a booster group since being eliminated in a school budget cut a decade ago.
Estimates show that the district would absorb just over $40,000 in additional annual expenses by funding the sports, and superintendent Kevin Abrahamson said he’s not yet ready to make a recommendation on the proposal.
Abrahamson said it’s possible he may recommend that the district only pay for the coaching salaries in each sport, which would cost about $22,000 per year, as a first step.
More than 100 people signed a letter to the board asking that Nordic skiing be funded, a move that prompted board members to seek the financial data associated with restoring school support to both the skiing and track programs.
Board members took no vote this week although Scott Kellerman sent signals that he would oppose the request, saying he’d rather see the funds devoted to academic programs or facilities improvements.
“$40,000 is almost a good portion of a teacher,” said Kellerman.
In other business, the board:
• Accepted the retirement notification of elementary faculty member Susan Ferguson.
• Received a request to begin contract negotiations from AFSCME Local 295, which represents most school staff members.
• Authorized a letter of support for the city of Ely’s broadband grant application.
• Received word that bids would be opened later this month from firms vying for the district’s health insurance contract. As many as five companies are expected to bid.
• Authorized pursuit of a cooperative agreement with Eveleth-Gilbert for girls hockey, with the understanding that the district would assume no costs for the program.
• Hired Katie Townsend for a part-time Early Childhood Family Education classroom assistant position.