PROGRESS 2020: WDC Elementary remodel boosts morale

A face lift can be seen throughout the WDC Elementary School including the office at the main entry to the school. Michael Johnson/Progress

Last September, Wadena-Deer Creek Elementary students and staff stepped into a nearly brand new facility, yet parts of that facility, including Memorial Auditorium, have been serving the district since 1934.

It's that historic auditorium and large gymnasium that really made remodeling rather than replacing the best decision moving forward for the district, WDC Schools Superintendent Lee Westrum said. Few elementary schools in the state have access to a gym that can hold 1,500 people or an auditorium of such grandeur. Estimates to replace the school came in around $31 million. Replicating the bones of the current school property wasn't an option.

The school remodel came at a cost of about $14.5 million. About $5.5 million of that came when voters approved funding beyond a $9 million amount the school board approved in September 2017. A large portion of the money, about 60%, was used to improve the HVAC (heating, ventilation, air conditioning) and indoor air quality of the elementary school. That's stuff the average person will never get to see, according to Westrum. But it's a change that's been felt, for sure.

"Overall, the remodel including all the upgrades that took place have created a better educational atmosphere," Westrum said. He noted that the amount of fresh air now entering the classrooms was a need. That quality air was the determining factor to push this remodel forward two years ago. Approval of all the funding, plus low interest rates, plus a favorable return on bond investments, and a low overall project bid added up to a project that far exceeded the hopes of the district officials.

Due to the extra cash, interior improvements came in renovations of classrooms, hallways, bathrooms, staff lounge areas, the main office, gymnasium, cafeteria and media center. The exterior saw roof and brick work, a new playground, bus parking area and the closure of half of Dayton Ave. After two years of work, it's got a whole new feel.


"We're real happy with it, especially the outdoor playground, bus coral, interior flooring, painting, natural light ... just beautiful," Rutten said.

Westrum and Rutten both mentioned how student safety has improved because of the new school bus parking lot and student drop off area, which separates bus and vehicle traffic during school hours.

"Overall the parking pressure has improved," Westrum said in mentioning the bus parking lot that is open to the public after school hours and the new diagonal parking on the west side of the school.

Student enthusiasm for the new playground has led Westrum to want to work towards updating another playground.

Fourth-graders Grady Schmid (left), Noah Stroeing and Jack Bucholz tried out a new swing with room for all three at the new WDC elementary playground, Tuesday, Sept. 3. Michael Johnson/Pioneer Journal

Rutten said the conversations he hears and general feel of the building has changed.

"Going back two to three years it just feels like a happier place," Rutten said. "It's got to be among the top K-4 elementary schools in the state. It's turned out better than I expected."


Westrum points to the tornado as one of several factors that allowed this project to happen. With the destruction of the middle school and high school in 2010, insurance and FEMA funds helped pay the $41 million bill for a new building. That being paid for, all the focus could go to the elementary school. It took some time, but the stars aligned in such a way to allow the district to now have two huge facilities in excellent condition.

"We are so fortunate," Rutten said. "We should be setup for another 30-40 years before another major thing needs to happen."

Michael Johnson is the news editor for Agweek. He lives in the city of Verndale, Minn., but is bent on making it as country as he can until he returns once more to the farm living he enjoys. Also living the dream are his two children and wife.
You can reach Michael at or 218-640-2312.
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