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MACCRAY debates $20M bond vote

RAYMOND — Voters in the MACCRAY School District go to the polls Jan. 7 to answer this question, according to School Board Chairman Lane Schwitters: “Does MACCRAY believe a unified school will provide the best education?’’

Schwitters spoke Monday evening to a crowd that filled the library at the MACCRAY Elementary in Raymond. They gathered for the third and likely final informal coffee hosted by school board members to discuss the upcoming vote.

A “yes’’ will authorize the school district to bond for up to $20 million to build an elementary school and theater/auditorium as part of the high school campus in Clara City. The funding includes $1 million to be used towards the repurposing, or if necessary the demolition, of the East Elementary and West Elementary schools in Raymond and Maynard.

Only voters can answer the most important question. Those attending the coffee in Raymond asked plenty of other questions as the date of the referendum approaches.

Here is a look at the main issues discussed:

Why have the cost estimates for remodeling the two elementary schools risen from roughly $12 million to $18 million?

The initial estimate by Energy Services Group of Wayzata looked at bringing the two buildings up to code. The second estimate was made after school board members developed plans to build a new elementary school in Clara City. They asked for new estimates of what it would cost to upgrade the two elementary schools to the same standard as the new building, so that they would be comparing “apples to apples,’’ according to school board member Jason Boike.

He said the main increase in the estimated cost is due to the inclusion of dehumidification systems at each of the elementary buildings to match plans for the new school. The systems add roughly $2 million to the costs at each.

Is the district proposing a “Cadillac’’ building with a community center, day care and other non-educational features?

The plans submitted for review and approved by the state Department of Education included a variety of items that may or may not be included in a final plan, according to Schwitters.

School funds would not be used to build a community center. The city of Clara City has expressed interest in attaching a community center. The city would have to pay the entire cost to build it, Schwitters said.

A day care center is being considered by the school board, but no decision has been made, he said.

Will the communities have input in the final decisions on what is included if a new elementary is built?

If there is a “yes’’ vote, school staff would provide input to the project architects as final plans are drafted, according to Interim Superintendent Loren Hacker. School board members would make the final decisions.

MACCRAY is one of the few districts where school board seats are elected by district, rather than at-large, he added.

How would transportation change?

Elementary students living at the periphery of the district would have longer bus rides by 10 minutes each way. High school students on the buses would no longer have to wait for stops at the elementary schools. Students in the middle would see reduced travel times, and the current need for shuttles would be ended, according to board members.

Would class sizes change with one elementary?

Class sizes would remain the same. The number of teachers and consequently the teacher-to-student ratio would be unchanged, according to Elementary Principal Doug Runia. The new school would have three classrooms per grade.

Those urging a “no” vote said the existing configuration and enrollment at each school is ideal for educational purposes. They said remodeling and keeping the existing elementary schools is the best way to assure the continuation of quality education.

Will the school have the funds to continue its existing education programs when retiring a $20 million debt?

Opinions varied, with opponents charging that an already tight budget for educational needs is sure to be hurt by the added burden.

Board chairman Schwitters said the cost of the construction for a new building would be levied directly on property taxes. A significant portion of operational costs are funded with state aid based on enrollment.

School board members said the existing three-school system is inefficient. The district is projecting annual savings of $300,000 by operating a single elementary in place of two, and the savings could go to educational needs.

What are the main advantages and disadvantages of the unified elementary proposal?

School board members cited the ability of teachers to more easily collaborate, consolidate services such as the library, and bring music and programs to one site, as some of the key features.

Those urging a “no’’ vote said the current system already provides the right size for learning and teacher-student interactions, while maintaining elementary schools in the two communities.

Their desire to keep two elementary schools is every bit as focused on the needs of MACCRAY as is the unified elementary proposal, they explained. Said one: “I am just as MACCRAY as the rest of you are.’’

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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