CLARA CITY — Like the country at large, voters in the MACCRAY School District are split between blue and red.
Blue-colored signs encourage residents to vote “yes” for a single-campus system to be located in Clara City, while red-colored signs promote a “no” vote on Nov. 5. The $39.5 million bond question represents the fourth time in just under five years time that the district is asking voters to support facility improvements.
A close vote is anticipated: A survey of district residents conducted by a professional firm at the start of the year showed a very narrow split between the two sides on the issue. “A pollster’s nightmare” is how Peter Leatherman, chief executive officer of Morris Leatherman, described the narrow divide in February when reporting the results to MACCRAY School Board members.
Interest in the referendum is high. As of Thursday, more than 600 absentee ballots had been returned to the district office.
No doubt, some of the division is a matter of location. Red “vote no” signs are more prevalent in Raymond and Maynard, where the East and West Elementary Schools would be closed if a single-campus plan is approved. Blue “vote yes” signs are numerous in Clara City, where the high school is located.
The bond issue asks voters to construct a new elementary school on the high school campus and an auditorium, as well as remodel classrooms and rebuild a career and technical education area.
The number one priority of the facilities proposal is to provide students with a safe and secure environment, said Superintendent of Schools Sherri Broderius. A central, modern facility will greatly enhance the ability to provide that safe environment.
A central location also offers efficiencies and educational opportunities. Locating staff in one location will eliminate the many lost hours spent by teachers who must drive between locations each day. Too much precious teaching time is spent on the road under the current three-site system, she said.
Having students together at one location also offers efficiencies. There is no need for two music rooms. No need to maintain twice the open hallway space, offices and infrastructure required by separate facilities, she said.
Maintaining less space, and not having to care for older buildings, will save taxpayer money, according to Broderius.
She also pointed out the benefits of an auditorium for students and the district as a whole. “The auditorium will celebrate the kids who do such awesome work in the arts, music and theater,” she said.
Upgrades at the high school will benefit students. There is a need for more classroom space as enrollment grows. There is a need to upgrade facilities for career-focused programs in everything from digital technology and agronomy to plumbing and welding.
The plan also makes it possible to implement middle school programming.
The current plan also calls for upgrading locker rooms and bathrooms, making all facilities compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act and Title IX gender equity laws, according to Broderius.
It’s time to upgrade the facilities to “industry standards,” she said in reference to modern educational needs. The current proposal “is about serving kids and being able to provide an efficient and effective educational system,” she said.
“Being bigger is not always better,” said Anita Petersen, a retired teacher who is among those who oppose the current facilities proposal. Petersen said she is concerned about losing the elementary schools. She feels it is best for the youngest students to go to school as close to their homes as possible.
She questions the decision to reduce the overall space available in the district's current buildings by consolidating in one location. The schools in Raymond and Maynard offer available space that can readily be remodeled to accommodate any growth in enrollment, she said.
The buildings were built for long lives, Petersen said. “To me, the older buildings are better built than the new ones.”
Petersen said today’s technology makes it possible for teachers and students alike to work together even if located in separate buildings. Technology allows teachers and students to access a lot of help that wasn’t available years ago.
An advocate for a “no” vote on the current proposal, Petersen said she would support a tax increase to renovate the existing facilities. But she said she is concerned about the tax impact of the current proposal on farmers right now.
The Ag2School tax credit will pay 54 percent, or an estimated $21.5 million, of the costs. The credit enacted by the Minnesota Legislature reduces the tax burden on ag lands by having the state reimburse districts.
That helps, Petersen agrees, but added: “Someone else is paying that.”
Even a modest tax increase on farmlands after three difficult years for farmers is a concern, she said.
“What I want is what I feel is best for our children,” Petersen said.
Along with the bond issue, voters will also decide whether to renew the district’s $1,103.14-per-pupil operating levy for another 10 years. It provides more than $700,000 in revenue annually for the district.
The funds are used to pay for everything from staff and books to utilities. “Those are the costs of doing business,” said Superintendent Broderius of the needs funded by the operating levy.
If the operating levy is not renewed, the district would have to cut staff, and that would directly impact students. “It’s people that provide our ability to run the education system for our kids,” she said.