Community battles over proposed expansion of St. Paul elementary school

An elementary school in need of renovations and an expansion has been a source of tension for some people in St. Paul.

At a meeting Monday night, city officials worked to figure out the future of Linwood Monroe Arts Plus in the Summit Hill neighborhood.
There was a standing room-only crowd inside the meeting room at City Hall as Board of Zoning Appeals members decided whether to give the project the go-ahead.

Those opposed to the project say the expansion would change the character of the residential neighborhood. Those in favor say it's a needed investment in education in St. Paul.

Hundreds of students attend Linwood Monroe Arts Plus School every day.

“What I have seen in her, who is our little artist, is a real deep love for the kind of education that happens at Linwood,” said Aida Martinez-Freeman, a mother of a student at the school.

Martinez-Freeman was among the people who packed into the hearing as members considered whether to allow a massive renovation and expansion project at the school to go forward.

“Improvements for our schools have everything to do with equity for our children, and now more than ever, we need to support public education,” said Martinez-Freeman.

Not only is it an arts magnet, it also has a high number of students with disabilities. But the school was not built with special needs students in mind.

“Obviously, 1922 you're talking about a building that wasn't built or constructed in an era with the diversity of education needs that we have today,” said Bryan Bass, the principal.  “We have very diverse programming, very inclusive programming.”

“This is a performing arts magnet school, it's a wonderful place where we have programs and stage performance, but the stage is not accessible,” said Zachary Wilson, a parent of a student. “So, any kids who have a walker or wheelchair or any mobility issues can't be on the stage.”

The project would include a three-story addition to the school, allowing for more space for students in the hallways and the classroom.

Since the project sits in the residential Summit Hill neighborhood, it needs zoning variances for the building's footprint and height.

Neighbors launched a petition drive to stop the project. Nancy Wagner, the co-chair of the Linwood Neighborhood Friends group, told Fox 9, residents in the area are concerned the expansion is too big for the current residential setting.

"Neighbors are opposed to the major variances being requested for both height and lot coverage," Wagner wrote in an email to Fox 9. "The school sits in a residential setting, and the proposed new addition would create a large, 62-foot tall structure. Neighbors are concerned about the loss of open space and sunlight, as well as the addition of 175 more students to the small, 1.82 acre site." 

In response, parents at the school launched an effort of their own.

“At some point, when we're talking about our children, even when we don't like something, we sacrifice it for their sake,” said Wilson. “This will change the neighborhood a little bit. I think it's an improvement.”

The teachers’ union and St. Paul NAACP are among those weighing in supporting the project. Whatever the board’s decision, either side has 10 days to appeal it to the city council.