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Fitness center and referendum reviewed
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About 25 people gathered in the North Crawford School Library last Thursday for what elementary school principal Brandon Munson described in his opening remarks as a Wellness Center Referendum Overview.

The fitness center, or wellness center as it is sometimes called, is an outgrowth of a federal grant, known as a PEP Grant, that seeks to promote lifelong fitness and wellness through a variety of ways.

The North Crawford Fitness Center, as proposed, would present a unique partnership with Vernon Memorial Healthcare to run a facility for community use as well as for the use of the school’s students.

VMH already runs a fitness center at its hospital in Viroqua and plans on running a similar facility in combination with the school, if the referendum is approved.

At the meeting last week, Munson explained that a variety of people associated with planning the fitness facility would present background information on the process that led to $1.3 million proposed North Crawford Wellness Center and the August 12 referendum that would authorize borrowing for its construction.

On hand for the presentation in addition to Munson and North Crawford Pep Grant Director Tarasa Lown were architect Dan Blumer, from HSR Associates; Angie Dahl, VMH Director of Corporate Community Health and Wellness; Kyle Bakkum, VMH CEO; financial adviser to the district Carol Wirth, Wisconsin Finance Professionals; and Anna Davidson, a North Crawford phy ed teacher.

Lown, the school’s PEP Grant director, told the group that she along with other member of the North Crawford Fitness Force, were a group of individuals committed to health and fitness and that the group was always community-oriented in their approach.

North Crawford was selected to receive the federal Carolyn White Physical Education Program (PEP) Grant in 2012, Lown explained. The $800,000 grant covers a three-year period from August 1, 2012 to July 31, 2015. In addition, to providing $175,000 in exercise equipment for the proposed fitness center, the grant has already purchased two climbing walls for the school, constructed a raised bed garden, and funded other fitness and wellness equipment and activities.

As far as the fitness center is concerned, the grant’s termination date is relevant, because under the terms of the grant, equipment purchased with grant funds can only be used by students and staff until the grant ends. In this case, that means the community could not use the fitness center under the direction of VMH until July 31, 2015. However as Lown pointed out, if the referendum passes and the wellness center is built, it won’t be completed until shortly after July 31, 2015. This would make the facility available to both the school and the community immediately.

Elementary school phy ed teacher Anna Davidson said that most of her younger students would not use the fitness center. However, it would have an impact on them even before they got to use it, because at home they would talk with brother, sisters, moms and dads, who were using the fitness center.  So, it would become a part to their life.

Davidson also told the group that elements of the proposed fitness center, like an improved special needs phy ed area, a larger space for the athletic trainer and more space for the currently cramped weight room, were all major benefits to the district.

In answer to a question, Lown said the district was absolutely investing in its students, but at the same time in the community.

HSR architect Dan Blumer, who has been responsible for the early architectural work, described the collaborative process with the district, the school board and VMH in evaluating needs and available resources. He noted initial plans to create an 8,500-square-foot facility were scaled back to 6,500 square feet with input from the board and VMH.

Blumer started at the beginning of the process and explained how existing space in the current building was evaluated and incorporated where possible.

Blumer went on to explain how the site was chosen and why it was chosen to be an addition on the west side of the building.

The architect even explained utility costs and estimated janitorial costs for the proposed fitness center.

Angie Dahl stated that VMH saw the proposed fitness center as a duplication of the services offered in Viroqua. She noted there was a long list of services and screening offered by the fitness center.

Dahl said fees to be charged to the public would be the same as those charged to fitness center members in Viroqua and members could use either facility.

The financial adviser to the district on the project, Carol Wirth from Wisconsin Financial Professionals, reviewed the referendum and what its wording meant to district taxpayers and voters. Wirth also discussed what state aid meant to the district and how much aid the district could expect for the cost of the fitness center.

The consultant explained some of the other factors that were considered in calculating the cost to local taxpayers. The borrowed money has a repayment limit of 20 years by law, according to Wirth. A 4.5 percent interest rate seems like a reasonable expectation in today’s market. The state aid offset was calculated at 25 percent. The tax impact would be $99,970 per year, but with the state aid offset it would be $73,470, according to Wirth. The consultant told the group all of the calculations that went into arriving at the estimated tax levy were conservative and better outcomes might  occur.

The payments would not show up on tax bills until December of 2015. The tax levy increase would be 42 cents per $1,000 of equalized property value. That means a property with an equalized property value of $100,000 would see a $42 increase in annual property taxes.

While the information presented by the school district, VMH and the consultants was informative much of it was repetitive to those who have been following reports of the project at school board meetings. However, the question-and-answer session that followed shed a different light on the project.

The first citizen to speak was Carmen Hutchison, who identified herself as a VMH employee who lives in Gays Mills. Hutchison explained later in the meeting that even though she works at VMH she finds it difficult to use the fitness center there because her schedule requires her to return home immediately after work. Although she has time at other points in the day, she doesn’t like the idea of driving back and forth to Viroqua another time. The young mother said she was very interested in using the fitness center, if it is approved and constructed.

Clark Mikes, another citizen attending the meeting, asked if there were plans in place to always have a trained person in the facility when it was in use.

VMH’s Dahl said there would always be someone present to monitor the situation.

Mikes asked what would happen if there was “a cutback.” Would this lead to cutting back on staff?

VMH CEO Kyle Bakkum stated VMH was committed to the project. He explained there is a commitment to run the facility for at least three years and it is estimated that VMH will lose up to $47,000 annually during the start up of the fitness center.

Mikes doubted there was a need or demand locally for a fitness center noting there were already facilities in Viroqua and Boscobel offering the same services. He also pointed out the area was declining in population.

Bakkum reiterated that VMH is committed to the area and having a fitness center. He also noted there is a long history of VMH helping local schools.

Mikes concluded by saying he could not vote in the district, but questioned how many people locally would be utilizing the fitness center from the community with a median age of 47.

Dahl noted the biggest population using the fitness center in Viroqua were the “active seniors,” paying $1 per visit, who were simultaneously attending to their social wellness in addition to their physical wellness.

Another local resident and retired North Crawford science teacher Russell Gilbert introduced another perspective when he spoke of the need to emphasize nutrition in the wellness programs. Gilbert said the building seemed to be an emphasis on fitness.

“There’s too much fitness in it for me and not enough wellness,” he said.

Gilbert also raised another point about paying fees for membership. He questioned why, as a taxpayer in the district, he should pay the same fee as someone from Readstown who does not pay taxes in the district.

Lown and Munson both acknowledged Gilbert was correct in focusing on nutrition as an essential component in wellness. Both pointed to parts of the program addressing fitness and both said curriculum was being developed to address that.

North Crawford 4K teacher Amy Allbaugh talked about the cooking cart purchased for the Beyond the Bell program and the strides made there with cooking different foods and teaching nutrition to younger kids.

Phy ed teacher Anna Davidson described nutrition talks and food sampling with second and third graders.

Hutchison told Gilbert that her daughter was coming home asking about food, which was not what she was doing as a child in the 70s and 80s.

Another resident Monica George took issue with what she called ‘wellness food.’ She stated kids have stopped eating because of it.

George also questioned the commitment of VMH to the project. CEO Bakkum again repeated the commitment of the hospital to the project.

For her part, George doubted volunteers from the community could be used to keep the fitness center open to the community, if VMH pulled out of the project after three years.

North Crawford School Board President Mary Kuhn said in response that there were other schools, which did exactly that successfully.

Mikes asked who will pay the insurance and Dahl said that North Crawford and VMH were in the process of working that out in a contract.

Lori Brockway-Williams asked if in three years VMH pulls out, did the district have a plan.

Elementary school Principal Brandon Munson said the district had gathered information on what other districts have done to run fitness centers.

 In answer to a question from Gays Mills resident Craig Anderson on how VMH got involved in the process of operating the fitness center here, CEO Bakkum said the school had approached VMH.

“What happens if we don’t approve the referendum?” Gilbert asked. “What is the backup plan?”

PEP grant director Lown was direct in her response saying there was not any space available for the $175,000 of equipment in the budget. She also said it would restrict any availability to the public at all.

“We would not be able to let the public use it,” Kuhn said.