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MACCRAY board seeks to end divide

CLARA CITY — A divided MACCRAY School Board is looking for ways to unify after voters in the Feb. 7 referendum rejected a $38.8 million bond issue that would have created a single campus for the district.

"People are asking: What now? What are we going to do now? Until we can get our board together, we are not going anywhere, in my opinion,'' said Lane Schwitters, chairman of the MACCRAY School Board. His comments at the board's meeting Monday opened up discussions by board members on how they can bridge their divisions.

The divisions were evident at the meeting's start, where for a second consecutive meeting, the board members split 3-3 on votes to elect a 2017 chair. Board members Carmel Thein, Scott Ruiter and Schwitters voted for Schwitters as chair; members Tate Mueller, Julie Alsum and Deb Brandt voted for Brandt as chair. Following two consecutive split votes, Schwitters — the 2016 chair — continues in the role unless a new member is elected. Board members intend to vote on the position again at their next meeting.

District voters rejected the bond issue by a 1,108 "no" to 1,003 "yes'' vote on Feb. 7. The bond would have funded construction of a new elementary school and a 500-seat auditorium on the high school campus in Clara City. Under the plan, the West and East elementary schools in Raymond and Maynard would have been razed unless sold.

Board members informally agreed Monday to a proposal by Superintendent Brian Koslofsky to hold a half-day retreat, aimed at bringing them together, with Katie Klanderud of the Minnesota School Boards Association. They also said they would consider the possibility of committing to a more extensive, 10-week program with a similar goal.

They also discussed other ways to find a way forward. Schwitters suggested that it may be time to consider changing from a six- to seven-member board. He also brought up the possibility of electing members at-large, instead of the current system where each of the original districts that comprise MACCRAY elects two members.

Brandt said she believes "win, win, win'' options remain for the district, but blamed the board's 4-2 decision to hold the referendum for widening the divisions.

"I think the vote, referendum came up extremely abruptly,'' Brandt said.

The board should have surveyed residents and continued discussions on a range of options before going to a referendum, she said.

The continued divide has been over a single-campus proposal and those who favor the current three-campus system.

"Maybe we can come up with a concept that nobody else has had that will work for us,'' said new board member Julie Alsum. "We don't have to be like everyone else.''

"One thing I've learned from this experience,'' Koslofsky said, "I would never, ever, ever recommend to a board that we move ahead with a project of this scope and monumental (importance) without a unanimous board.''

The board members' discussion Monday on how to unify was followed by comments from members of the public expressing their frustration and a sense of urgency.

"This board has to come together to heal everybody,'' said Jess Smith, a member of the public and organizer for the Vote Yes group.

"To put it bluntly, the kids got the shaft,'' said Linsey Saue of the bond referendum. "You six are elected to the board to be here for the students and do what you feel is best for them, and not to do what's best for Raymond, Clara City or Maynard.''

Mary Ellen Miller urged board members to consider setting term limits and the possibility of rotating the board chair position. She said board members failed to have a full discussion on options for a three-campus system before calling for the referendum.

Mark Kasella expressed his frustration as a parent in the district by pointing to a list of more than 30 advantages of a single elementary school. "People still seemed to vote on party lines,'' he said. "Too many educational inadequacies were brought to light and I think they need to be addressed.''

Tom Cherveny

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

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