The Jefferson School Building was a hotly contested topic at the Red Wing School Board meeting on Dec. 3.

The discussion centered on the Stencil Group's proposal to purchase the block-sized property and establish a 70-unit senior living facility.

Based out of Sioux Falls, S.D., with offices in Rochester and St. Paul, CEO Nate Stencil represented the company and their plans to the board.

The property wasn't previously for sale by the district, but Stencil and his group were given tours of the facility in the spring.

Stencil remarked at the quality of the building, commending the district on its upkeep over the years.

Preliminary plans would have Stencil Group adding a three-story building on the block that would act as the senior living facility. The Jefferson building would be used as a senior community space and a possible area for child care.

The Jefferson building was built at 601 Buchanan St. in 1917 and closed as an elementary school in 2003. Goodhue County Education District used the building several years before the River Bluff Education Center opened in 2015. Red Wing Public Schools used Jefferson for office space for several months in 2017 and 2018 during construction projects at other buildings.

The district has not actively sought buyers, but School Board member Steve Anderson pointed out the school has been "mothballed" for quite some time. Anderson said the maintenance alone to keep the building's pipes from freezing is $50,000-$75,000 a year. Anderson said he was concerned it would come to a point where the district would possibly have to demolish the building.

"We do not have a need for this building ... we don't need another piece of property that's a burden on the school board and finance," Anderson said.

Historic building

Board members Bethany Borgschatz, Pam Roe and Janie Farrar asked how the Jefferson building would be maintained, concerned the historic building would be severely altered.

Stencil said his company has respect for the building, inside and out. There would need to be a functional elevator added to the property and Stencil said they would adjust the windows some, but overall they appreciate the building.

"It's a beautiful structure," Stencil said. "We have no intentions on touching it."

Roe said she is pleased to know the building would not be severely altered. However, Roe said she was surprised by the plan presented to the board.

Borgschatz seconded Roe's comments, saying as someone who lives in the neighborhood, she wants to keep the playground and green space accessible to community members. Stencil said the playground would be moved closer to the Jefferson building and the green space would be changed to include the new building.

The Stencil Group is also working with the city, with Stencil saying they have been supportive, filling a need in the city that desperately needs a wide array of housing.

Procedural issue

Board President Arlen Diercks said he doesn't necessarily oppose the sale, but feels the "procedures" haven't been followed.

"I want us as a board to follow a procedure that's not just going through an operations committee but having a full board discussion on this before anything gets too far. ... Because if we sell this building, and all of a sudden in a couple years we need to build some space somewhere else, we've got egg on our face in front of the public," Diercks said.

Diercks said school could be renovated "50-cents-on-the-dollar" in case they need space in the future.

Anderson rebutted that, saying it would likely be $1.7 million to $2 million to renovate the building to have classes in Jefferson School again.

Stencil, saying he's not familiar with board procedure, asked what the timeline might be on the project. Stencil said the Jefferson building is company officials' top choice, but he doesn't want to wait numerous months for the board to make a decision. Stencil said they have looked at other properties in the city and want to build in Red Wing.

Anderson said the board needs to discuss it further, saying it could be sometime in the next year.

Near the end of the discussion, Diercks said, "It's ridiculous that we're trying to be pressured into a decision this fast."

Anderson interrupted.

"They're saying that if you can't assure by next February that we're going to move on ... That's reality," Anderson said.

"You guys are all pushing for this right now," Diercks continued. "I think it's totally ridiculous. This should've never gone to the board tonight. It should've come back to us back in October if this is what the case is and you had to have decision by now."

Anderson said the operations committee has been working on this for over a year, saying the only part that's changed is what the company proposes doing with the rest of the block.

"The only thing coming into this, I repeat, the integrity of the existing building we wanted to keep intact. Beyond that, it's arrogant of us to think that we can dictate what's done with a property that we're selling."

Stencil reiterated that his company looks forward to working with the city and residents, because they "don't want to go to war over something they don't want in their neighborhood."

The operations committee will meet 5:30 p.m. Dec. 10 at the district office where discussion likely will continue. The School Board will meet at 5:30 p.m. Dec. 17 at City Hall. Barring some special meeting, that will be Anderson and Borgschatz's final meeting, because they did not run for re-election.

Their successors, Jim Bryant and Holly Tauer, were in attendance Monday but didn't participate in discussion. Board member Mike Christensen was not present.