To be honest, I don't do a very good job of dog paddling while attempting to swim.
Therefore, I don't have much sympathy with the folks who are wishing the Brainerd school bond referendum included an eight-lane swimming pool in the plans.
Shucks, the way I hear the story the reason there is no auditorium at Brainerd High School is that when they built the school it came down to an auditorium or a swimming pool. The swimming pool, even if it isn't eight lanes, won out.
So here we are without an auditorium. And, no, the $59.9 million bond issue that will be decided this March doesn't include any room for the auditorium or a fancy, new swimming pool.
Some folks, this editor included, would favor going higher than $60 million if the referendum included the auditorium. And I told Superintendent Jerry Walseth and school board members Janet Moran and Ruth Gmeinder as much Tuesday when the school administrators and school board members, their business manager, bond adviser and architect met with The Dispatch Editorial Board.
Walseth figures that auditorium and swimming pool advocates want "the perfect plan." Walseth and the school board figure the sticker shock of such a "perfect plan" would have no way of passing.
But, I argued, it's a crime there is no high school auditorium or performing arts center.
Walseth, his voice rising, said, "I can't have Lincoln kids going to class in a locker room one more day," Walseth said. "I can't tolerate having special education kids in a poorly ventilated room one more day."
"I share Jerry's passion for the classroom needs," Moran said.
The school people are aware the critics are out there. But they shaped the plans for this referendum by deciding what would do the most good for the most people at a reasonable cost. Walseth emphasizes that all grade levels will benefit.
This isn't just about aging buildings, the superintendent says, even though the newest building was the high school, circa 1968. But it allows for ways to handle the growth and expanded programs. Freeing up space in the aging elementary buildings will help ease crowded classrooms and air quality problems.
By pulling all the fifth-graders out of the elementary schools, for example, and putting them in a new facility in Baxter for grades 5-8 the district will have 21 classrooms freed up for the remaining elementary pupils.
As things are now, the district's offices at Mississippi Horizons School are in what Walseth considers some of the best educational space in the district, about 10,000 square feet worth. Under the plan, the offices would be moved to Washington School. Mississippi Horizons becomes home to the district's ninth-graders and as part of the high school campus. Some teachers' offices would be in the old district office space. And a warehouse behind the gym in the high school would be turned into another 10,000 square feet of classroom space.
The bond issue's impact on taxes doesn't appear to be the major stumbling block for some folks. Joel Sutter, the financial adviser from the Twin Cities, displayed charts showing that the residential homestead with a $100,000 market value would have an estimated tax increase of $52. If the plan fails and they waited just a year later to propose the same bond issue and interest rates rose even just half a percent that would add $5 million to the interest cost over 20 years. And there probably would be higher construction costs.
The school district now has an enrollment of 7,350. Officials figure growth will continue at about 1 percent a year. That means, in theory, that the next need for added facilities would come in about 10 years. Walseth figures the board should start gearing up for that next expansion in about five years.
Remember, this is a growing district. Eighty percent of Minnesota's school districts are declining.
Walseth said the main concerns he's heard have been the tax impact and the shift of the fifth-graders out of the grade schools. When the tax impact is analyzed, some of the financial fears are eased.
But doubts linger about mixing fifth-graders and eighth-graders in the same facility. School officials feel these concerns are legitimate. But they figure separating the students in pods will help keep them segregated. Common areas, such as the cafeteria or technology center, will be used by different grades at different times. There even will be separate bus pick-up points.
"Not too long ago here they moved the sixth-graders into the middle school," Walseth said. "There were concerns then. Now it is a non-issue.
"And I must also note that the model exists. We have sixth-, seventh-, eighth and ninth-graders now together at Mississippi Horizons.
"This has been a benefit for older kids to mentor younger kids," said Moran, adding that she feels the environment in a new building could address the concerns about younger students.
Kathy Hegstrom, the teachers' union president attending the editorial board meeting, said teachers and staff members appear to be supportive of the referendum.
"The school board came up with the best plan to impact the community with the lowest financial cost they can," Hegstrom said.
Hegstrom, a high school teacher, likes the way the plan aligns the ninth grade with the high school .
"All of the core subjects we teach are (for grades) nine-12 now," she said.
"I hear far more positives," Moran said. "I hear people saying this is a great plan.
"I'm somewhat annoyed we keep talking about the negatives."
Part of the referendum, if it passes, will allow the school to upgrade the elementary schools so that each pupil will have access to a laptop computer. There will be less crowding.
"I've been approached by a lot of vocal people," Gmeinder said. "I've been sitting down with them one-on-one and answering questions. It's just an educational process we have to go through."
As for the high school auditorium, school board members discussed the need. They determined that a bare bones auditorium built to the north of the high school with a seating capacity of 1,200 would cost about $6.9 million. Gmeinder noted that a combination of private and public funding could make the auditorium a reality in the future. Already there is talk of including an auditorium proposal in what the school board considers Phase Two. That would make the auditorium another 10 years from construction.
"The board is committed to an auditorium in good faith," Moran said. "I would like to have it connected to the high school."
"We've said over and over this is a community need," Gmeinder said, indicating the school district and the city and the private sector could work together to meet the need.
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.