Albert Lea school district looking at possible security upgrades

·5 min read

Sep. 7—The Albert Lea school district is considering upgrades to its buildings for enhanced school security.

Jennifer Walsh, the district's director of finance and operations, talked about the proposed upgrades in the school board workshop Monday night.

"We recognize that we do not have welcome and secure entrances at all of our buildings," she said.

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Her proposal: have someone behind a desk inside a vestibule. A vestibule is defined as an antechamber, hall or lobby next to the outer door of a building and serves as a passage between an outer and inner door.

Currently at every building besides Halverson Elementary School, visitors press a buzzer, and then a person inside the building who can see them through a camera will talk to them and buzz them through.

And at that point, any guest can go into the building without having to go through the office.

"That's where we believe we have an opportunity to improve that process," she said.

Walsh said every other school building needed mitigation.

Walsh, Superintendent Ron Wagner and the district's cabinet have identified that as a priority.

Now they are going through the process of determining what that process would look like at each building. And Walsh's presentation to the board identified what it would look like at the high school.

The vestibule at the main entrance would get an upgrade.

"Currently the way it works is one of these doors is unlocked, people can come in, they buzz ..., there's someone at a desk [in the office] inside that can see on a little camera of the person buzzing in," she said.

Any visitor is currently directed to go to the office once buzzed in, but according to Walsh there was nothing currently that required them to do so.

Walsh suggested putting two six-foot walls running perpendicular from the outside doors to the inside doors. One area would only be accessible for people wishing to leave the building, while in the other area inside the vestibule there would be a desk with a person inside a header that had plexiglass.

"Someone will come in, they will talk to this person," she said.

The individual at the header would talk to that person and buzz them through the main entrance doors from inside the vestibule. The person manning the header, a hallway monitor, would work during school hours. The district would not hire additional staff.

"That's considered a safer entrance than what we currently have," she said.

Walsh admitted the district knew there were vulnerabilities at their schools, particularly the entrances.

"This is just something that we've identified as one of the district goals and something we want to work towards," she said. "Frankly, we've seen, especially in the past few months, some horrific examples of things that happen in school districts, and we want to make sure that Albert Lea public schools has done all that we know is best practice to keep our schools safe."

She was hopeful to analyze buildings and develop proposed plans at other schools within the next six to eight weeks, though she admitted she was not sure if work could begin while school was in session.

She said there were "a couple of different ways" to fund the project.

One way was through the sale of building bonds, which would result in $970,000 available for the district to address safe entrances and "other safety measures in all of our schools."

"We have this opportunity because in 2018, when the school district went out for a vote for the Hammer Field and Halverson projects, it was approved for $24,615,000," she said. "Because bids came in lower than expected, the district ended up only selling bonds for $23.6 million."

Walsh did not have an exact figure for how much the high school project would potentially cost, and she was still working to determine if the additional money would be able to address school security at every building.

"It would certainly give us a very good start," she said. "Some of the buildings are going to require more major [work]."

She pointed out Sibley Elementary and Southwest Middle School would need work, though she said she needed time to draw up specific improvement plans.

There was also a time-sensitivity factor.

"There's only five years from the original bonds sale that you can sell the remaining portion of the bonds available," she said. "That time period comes up in May for these bonds."

Walsh hoped that if they could sell them this fall when she said property taxes would go down this year, the bond sale would not increase property taxes for 2023 and beyond.

"That way property tax impact is virtually unchanged from 2022 to 2023," she said. "That's why there's some urgency to take advantage of this situation to sell the bonds and then use those proceeds, and there is no time limit ... to use those funds."

Walsh hoped the board would approve the resolution at the next school board meeting on Sept. 26.

Ehlers Inc., the district's financial advisers, would receive and evaluate proposals for sale of bonds on Oct. 24. There would also be a special meeting that evening to approve the sale. An estimated closing date was Nov. 17, and the district would receive funds shortly thereafter.

She said that by doing this now, the levy would remain level and not increase property taxes from last year. The district only became aware of the opportunity over the summer.

"It's kind of a perfect timing of a need in our buildings and a resource opportunity to address that need," she said.