The Brainerd area is facing a pivotal choice this spring -- a choice that is more far-reaching than we can imagine. We must choose whether we want to sacrifice now and build for the future of our children and grandchildren, or let the status quo continue and accept the consequences.
Brainerd's public schools have scores of dedicated teachers and staff who for decades have labored mightily in outdated and inadequate facilities to bring a quality education to kids. Now, as those fine old buildings finally pass the end of their useful lives, these teachers and staff are asking for help. They know that cramped, outmoded facilities do have an effect on students' learning and health.
My father, Don Wig, was one of Brainerd's dedicated teachers. For 31 years he worked long hours as an industrial technology teacher and basketball coach for the Brainerd Public Schools. Day after day he would come home late from school (it was never work to Dad -- it was school) because he had stayed an extra hour or two to allow some enthusiastic student the chance to put extra touches on a prized project. Dad himself also made many projects in his shop -- crafting bookshelves, display cases and even fiberglass kayaks for a school system that could not afford to purchase them. Most or all of this time was unpaid extra effort he did just because he was dedicated to the kids.
How is my father related to the topic of improving school buildings? For most of his career, Dad worked in "shop" classes with inadequate ventilation and open ceilings with insulated pipes overhead. When it was time to knock down walls between classrooms and renovate his shop at Washington Middle School, Dad volunteered to do it himself over the summer for a little extra compensation.
Dad died in early 1992 of mesothelioma -- an incurable cancer caused by asbestos fibers lodged in the lungs. While it cannot be proven that Dad's cancer was definitely caused by asbestos from school, the open pipes in his classrooms were lined with asbestos and he spent 8-11 hours per day underneath them. Yet, even when he knew the cause of his cancer, he was mortified at suggestions that he sue for damages. For Dad, school was never about him -- it was always about the kids.
Since Dad's death, the district has done massive asbestos removal in the old schools. This alleviates one problem, but concern remains about other environmental and health factors -- including overcrowding that overwhelms ventilation systems and may cause as yet unseen problems for students and staff. For this, and other reasons, this referendum is a critical moment for our children and teachers.
Although my Dad is not here to speak for himself, I know in my heart what he would say. He sacrificed during his entire life for his family and his students. He would gladly sacrifice $10 per month to build better schools.
(Wig is a central Lakes College business instructor and consultant who attended school in the Brainerd School District.)
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