Editor’s note: This is the second story in a multi-part series highlighting the St. Ansgar School’s renovations and construction over the past several years. Much of these projects wouldn’t have been possible without the community’s commitment, with so many lending a hand it would be impossible to mention them all. Our goal is to shed light on some of the voulenteers, school board members, coaches, teachers, parents, students and alumni that have helped make St. Ansgar one of the best looking schools of its size in Iowa.
Lynn Baldus wasn’t sure if it was the hot summer day or nervousness causing little beads of sweat to form on her brow.
As the 6-12 grade principal of St. Ansgar, she was pretty used to getting up and speaking in front of groups of people. But if this presentation was going to get them the grant money they wanted — and needed — to finish their project, it had to go off without a hitch.
St. Ansgar Superintendent Jody Gray set down on the podium some note cards covered in talking points Baldus had drawn up. They were the same notes her colleague had goaded her into rehearsing several times before the two school officials stepped foot in the conference room of the Worth County Developmental Authority office in Northwood in June of 2016.
It was there one shot at this, and they wanted to do well.
A powerpoint version of their presentation glowed on the projector screen behind Gray as she fiddled with her notes, about to begin her spiel.
Before she could start, one of the WCDA members interrupted, and got up and moved to the door.
“I’m sorry, we can’t see your presentation,” they said as they flicked off the lights.
Gray glanced down at her notes. She couldn’t see a thing.
The WCDA was opened in 2006 in coordination with Diamond Jo Casino as a way to offer grants and scholarships to members and establishments in Worth County and the surrounding areas, by taking a percentage of the casino’s profits and putting it back into the local communities.
“At the time we had not taken anything to them,” Gray said. “They said to us ‘You’re the only school we haven’t heard from’.”
Technically, the school is in Mitchell County, not Worth. But St. Ansgar boasts one of the largest school districts by area in Iowa, and a large number of its students are from Worth County. So they gave it a shot.
Teachers and coaches Devin Schweisow and Drew Clevenger had drawn up an idea of what the St. Ansgar facilities could look like, and the school board and donors had already begun to give funds and volunteer hours for a few things here and there, such as irrigation for the softball field, to get the baseball field it’s own location and new football bleachers with no football field to put them on. The end goal still sat far beyond the horizon.
When they presented to the WCDA, they didn’t ask for much, and didn’t expect to get much either.
“We basically said ‘Here’s where we are, and here’s what we need’,” Baldus said. “We knew from the get go we weren’t going to get everything.
“We [thought we] were going to need a lot of bake sales to make this work.”
But the presentation got the job done, and then some. A short time later the WCDA called to inform the school that it would be receiving well over $300,000 —the most funds they’d ever given to a school in a single donation at the time.
“I like to think [the notes] helped,” Baldus said.
The WCDA grant went a long way to providing a big chunk of the funding for the facilities you see in St. Ansgar today: lights for the new baseball field, which was recently voted the best field in the state of Iowa by the Iowa High School Baseball Coaches Association; the new all weather track, which school officials anticipate will host meets in the near future; moving the football field, storage shed and concession stand.
From the grant, and through lots of donations and contributions from the community, all of the pieces have neatly fallen into place over the last 5 years or so, but no piece was bigger than the school bond vote that was passed in the fall of 2014. The vote approved the sale of $14.16 million in general obligation bonds, with the proceeds to fund construction of a new elementary school where the old football field sat, a new high school gym in the west end of the parking lot, and to move the football field to the old track/practice field location.
Typically, bond votes are contentious and take several elections and revisions, needing at least 60 percent approval needed to pass. Sixty-seven percent of the St. Ansgar school district members voted in favor of the measure on the first try.
The former elementary — now the “South Square” community center, was a two-story, red brick building built in 1928. The second floor wasn’t handicap accessible. The tall-ceilinged rooms heated up like microwaves in the warmer months. A nuclear-fallout shelter lurked in the basement, a Cold War relic from a forgotten era. It was time for a change.
According to Gray, the timing couldn’t have been better. The school had just finished paying off some of its remaining debts, which freed up funding for the new project and saved the district about $15,000 in interest.
Gray said a lot of surveys and community meetings an were held to make sure the correct decision was made, and they decided rebuilding was better than renovation.
The School facilities committee put together a “Vote Yes Committee” to hold informational meeting throughout the school district, which went a long way to getting the vote passed.
“We passed the bond issue at the right time,” Gray said. “We did our homework.”
From getting the bond passed to building the facilities themselves, volunteer hours have been countless from community members. Even the students have pitched in, laying sod for the football and baseball fields to name one example. No one person can take all of the credit for the vast number of improvements that have been made, and no one seems to want to. It’s been a group effort through and through, and a source of pride for the community as a whole.
“Even the kids take pride, this is their school,” Baldus said. “That [pride] is built into this community.”
Although the project is lightyears beyond where it was half a decade ago, the final touches are still being applied. The next goal is to tie all of the facilities together by paving walkways that connect the school to all of the fields and putting the final touches on the concession stand.
“In the 5 years I’ve been here, a lot has happened and I can’t take credit for all of that,” Baldus said, noting how her role in the process has been just a small piece.
One of the thing Baldus looks forward to is the new track, saying how excited the kids were because it meant they don’t have to run laps around the school for practice anymore.
“The joke has always been ‘We’ve got the worst track, but an incredibly successful team’,” Baldus said — and she’s right. The program has turned out a handful of state champions the last few decades, and who knows what the next generations will be able to do with an actual track to practice on.
“The kids have always adjusted, and made it work,” Baldus said. “I can’t wait. It’s going to be so great.”