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Brainerd School District: Officials outline referendum plans in public meetings

Principal Andrea Rusk (left, standing) listens to a district resident's question regarding the April 10 referendum vote. Monday's session provided an opportunity for district officials to outline the referendum and to hear any questions, comments or concerns. Gabriel Lagarde / Brainerd Dispatch

During a three-year planning phase, the Brainerd School District hosted 150 community hearings to get input on the referendum. Now they're taking the results of this process and presenting them back to the public.

About 50 residents of the Brainerd School District on Monday filed into the cafeteria located in the north campus of Brainerd High School for an informational public hearing.

Superintendent Laine Larson outlined the three-question referendum to be voted on April 10. Jointly valued up to $204 million, it would see to the renovation of 12 facilities in the district, as well as the potential construction of a new Baxter Elementary School and a new performing arts center.

Voters would not have to pay the entire amount. The voter-approved portion would be $145.8 million, if approved. Questions 1 and 2 can be independently ratified or rejected, while Question 3 is contingent upon the acceptance of Question 2.

The referendum will ask voters to approve or disapprove:

• Question 1: Investing in the elementary school buildings and Early Childhood Family Education program for a total cost of $104 million; voter-approved cost is $68.4 million.

• Question 2: Investing in the secondary buildings for a total cost of $93 million; voter-approved cost is $69.4 million.

• Question 3: Investing in a performing arts center for a total cost of $8 million, which would be fully supported by voter-approved dollars.

Brainerd High School Principal Andrea Rusk noted there is duplication of services posing an efficiency issue for Brainerd High School, which is situated on neighboring but separate campuses. She expressed her position that the best arrangement for students would be to place their learning environment "under one roof," as well as expanding the pool facilities and auditorium to meet the school's needs.

During the three-year planning process, areas of concern revolved around aging buildings. Many of the schools in the Brainerd School District were built in the 1930s, with all but Forestview predating 1968. This presents limitations in terms of space, safety needs and amenities for modern education practices.

From among the audience, there were some concerns raised over the tax impacts of the referendum—particularly by a man who said his monthly social security check increased by only $4 this year, while the referendum would increase taxes by $7.25 per month.

Scott Gabril, a resident of Baxter, said he was concerned with taking a vote when much of the plan is still in the conceptual stages and finalized costs are pending—citing the undetermined building site for the new Baxter Elementary School, which is slated to cost $26 million, as an example.

While the public is expected to make a binding commitment to the proposal, he added, the final price tag may only come after the process is completed and voters are unable to back out.

"They have everything set up, but they don't have everything moneywise where they need to be," Gabril said, adding that he felt there needed to be improvements made for the district. "We need to do something, but we don't have the whole picture. What we talk about now could be different come voting time."

During the presentation, Business Services Director Steve Lund said it's the district's intention to have a site for the new Baxter school determined within the next 30 days.

Echoing Gabril's sentiment was Brainerd resident Troy Turcotte. Turcotte questioned why the majority of the information available to the public pertained to capital improvements—design and building costs, infrastructure needs—while there was relatively little information for projected operational costs.

He said the most recent example, the construction of Forestview Middle School, was a point when the district requested funds for construction, then returned on multiple occasions to the community with other expenditures they didn't fully address in the beginning.

"I would like to see the whole picture. I'm voting on part of it and I don't see the other part. I'm buying a car and it gets 10 miles to the gallon when you told me it'd get 20," Turcotte said. "Just give me the whole picture, tell me how much."

During the presentation, Lund admitted there was little information available at the hearing for operational costs, though he said they factored in prominently in the planning process.

Any questions or comments regarding the referendum can be directed to www.blueprint181.org or the Brainerd School District number 218-454-6900. The referendum vote is scheduled from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. April 10. Early absentee voting begins Feb. 23.

Visit https://tinyurl.com/brdreferendum for a previous Dispatch story containing further detail on the referendum questions and polling places.

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