A recent story in the Brainerd (Minn.) Dispatch on the regional school district’s facilities rebuilding program reads a little like a roundup of the news, as there’s a lot more going on than just a single project.
The article described the school board’s approving the final design for redeveloping an elementary school into an early childhood center and also approving construction plans for projects at a high school facility. The article also touched on construction getting underway for renovation at the Forestview Middle School in Baxter.
Last month there were stories on groundbreaking ceremonies for elementary school projects, land acquisition for a new school playground and even more.
What’s unfolding in the Brainerd School District is one of the more interesting public-investment stories in the state, about $205 million for a rural district that serves fewer than 7,000 students. It is a comprehensive, let’s-get-it-done-right program of building and rebuilding across a district with a dozen facilities, a portfolio with an average age of roughly 50 years.
“Like anything, if you don’t reinvest in the assets and the infrastructure you have, it starts becoming a drain on the operation,” said Mike Dillon, president of the sizable local employer Lexington Manufacturing, and a past volunteer on a school facilities planning committee. “They had been doing that in Brainerd for years and years, just dibble-dabbling around, repairs here, upgrades there.”
The district has six elementary school buildings — four of them built in the mid-1950s, two from the Great Depression — serving a district that includes Brainerd and nearby communities. Five are being renovated, with a sixth being turned into an early-childhood development center as an all-new building in Baxter replaces it.
The schools for bigger kids are getting a lot of investment, too. A renovation and expansion will allow high schoolers in Brainerd, currently split between a north and south campus, to be in one facility. The south campus will get a new mission, and part of the high school will be upgraded into a modern 1,200-seat performing-arts center, too.
All of this was presented to voters for approval last year in the form of three separate questions, broken down for the elementary schools, secondary schools and finally the performing-arts center. All three passed, and only the question of investing $8 million into a performing-arts facility was a close vote.
The local Chamber of Commerce leaders were among the supporters, and as Brainerd Lakes Chamber President Matt Kilian put it, “we not only supported it, we actively supported it.”
A project this sweeping was years in the making, already underway when district Superintendent Laine Larson arrived from Thief River Falls in 2016. The prospect of a big capital-improvement project was one of the things that attracted Larson to the job, she said, as she had led a far smaller but similar program that voters approved in Thief River Falls.
One of her priorities before bringing the project to the Brainerd district’s voters was to hear more from taxpayers, parents and others, through what she described as listening sessions.
One big change in thinking that came out of that process was the decision to retain and renovate smaller, existing elementary schools rather than close a few to send kids to far bigger new schools. It might have been less costly to close neighborhood schools and consolidate, she said, but that’s not what she and other leaders heard from the public.
“Don’t close it. Instead take care of it,” Larson said. “That’s really what this whole project is about.”
When the planning turned into a proposal, the chamber was among the first organizations to schedule meetings with its members to air concerns and answer questions.
“This is a conservative area, politically and financially,” Kilian said. “There had to be a good business case to move forward, and I think [school officials] recognized that.”
The business owners and other chamber members had questions, of course. Why invest in all the buildings at once? How will increased investment improve workforce-readiness programs for jobs that don’t necessarily require a university degree? And what’s the expected increase on commercial and industrial property taxes?
The district provided an online tax calculator, and for the median-valued house in the region the total additional tax cost came to about $7 per month. The number for the median commercial property turned out to be about $50 per month.
That was a helpful number, Kilian added, because $600 a year looked cheap compared with the cost of trying to recruit a single new employee.
Employers in the region, as in lots of other areas of Minnesota, have found it difficult to keep fully staffed. Top-shelf schools would sure help in attracting new workers.
“We have excellent-performing facilities, but the aesthetics matter,” Kilian said. “The first walk-through of the school says a lot about not only the quality of education but the investment of the community and how it gets behind its kids and families.”
Local bank President Kim Ellingson of Bremer Bank, leader of the advocacy group for the facilities referendum, described “one of the first ah-ha moments” for her as when she learned from a city official in Brainerd that often the first place job candidates from out of town go when considering moving there is to the schools. And visitors to Brainerd had not been impressed.
Since then the message of investment — spend money now and get benefits for a long time — is broadly understood, and not just with business owners.
Ellingson said “the most telling comment” she heard as an advocate for the project came at a meeting of business owners. As Ellingson remembered it, this business owner said, “If I can put the money into the taxes and it goes toward this, I will see that return to me tenfold.”