The proposed fifth- through eighth-grade middle school in Baxter was the main topic at a community forum Monday at the Brainerd High School.
The Brainerd Lakes Area League of Women Voters and The Brainerd Dispatch hosted the televised forum that addressed the Brainerd School District's proposed building referendum.
The school district is seeking $59.9 million for school building needs, including $47.2 million to build a middle school, $4.15 million for technology needs throughout the district; $750,000 to move the administrative, community education, Fun and Friends and the media and technology offices to Washington Middle School; and $7.8 million to construct a ninth- through 12th-grade campus with the high school and Mississippi Horizons.
The referendum vote on the 20-year bond will be March 12.
Members of the opposing side of the school district's $59.9 million bond referendum listened to school officials answer a question at a debate Monday. Members were Marv Begin (left), a former Brainerd School Board candidate; residents Patti Harrison and Karen Toman; and Gary Scheeler, a Brainerd City Council member.
Speaking for the bond were Superintendent Jerry Walseth, board member Janet Moran, John Luce of Widseth Smith Nolting architecture and engineering firm and Kristin Hanson of Ehlers and Associates financial consultants. Members of the opposing side were Marv Begin, a former Brainerd School Board candidate; Gary Scheeler, Brainerd City Council member; and residents Patti Harrison and Karen Toman.
"We're just against larger schools," said Begin, in his opening comments. "Smaller schools are safer."
Harrison said her family used to live in a city with large schools and the school had more behavioral changes, violence, fights, more weapons and vandalism.
"Our family lived this," she said. "Kids were beaten up and a pipe bomb was found in a locker. This is why we moved back to Brainerd.
"Students also learn more and have a better attitude with smaller schools. They have a sense of ownership. Bigger is not always better."
Toman cited other schools in the state that built new schools that had difficulties. She said Bemidji School District built a new building four years ago and since then has made several cuts in programs.
Walseth responded and said the reason why Bemidji had to make the cuts it did was because voters did not pass a levy that would have given the school district the operating funds.
"We did the opposite," he said. "We had people vote on the levy in November (the school is only levying a portion of it until a building plan is approved)."
Walseth said having a large school may not be the best plan, but there is no perfect plan. He commented that the middle school is designed to have each grade separated in pods. Having the fifth- through eighth-grade configuration also alleviates the pressure in the elementary schools and keeps them as neighborhood schools, he said.
Begin said the school board should not settle for the plan and noted that the district has property in Brainerd in Buffalo Hills.
"We could buy five schools instead of the one middle school," he said.
The opposition panel also asked why the district is rushing the decision on the proposed plan.
"We need time to reconsider," said Toman. "We need a well defined plan for the short and long terms with all of its associated costs."
Walseth said the date was one of three the district could choose from and March 12 coincides with annual township elections.
Begin said the timing also was unfair to people who travel south during the winter. He said absentee ballots don't work and people won't know what has been discussed. Walseth said people in the school district should know what is going on.
"This started in 1995 and kicked-in in 1999," he said. "We'd love for them to vote. Research shows that they (vacationing residents) are more likely to vote for education."
Scheeler was concerned how the school's plans would affect Brainerd's plan for restoring the downtown area. He also was concerned that the school board did not follow the city's comprehensive plan that includes what the school district could do for future sites.
"I feel that the problems could have been eliminated if they followed this," he said.
"Many moved here for the lifestyle and have taken pay cuts," said Scheeler. "Most schools are in trouble. We need good modest schools. That's not too much to ask for."
The one thing both sides agreed on is citizens should become informed about the referendum and vote March 12.
Walseth said there is incorrect information being spread. He noted the public is welcome to tour the buildings and review the report by Widseth Smith Nolting on the conditions of the buildings. The forum will be rebroadcast on Channel 8 and 99 several times.
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