Brainerd School Board members disagree on how much money to charge certain groups for the use of district facilities.
With updates to Harrison and Nisswa elementary schools now completed, along with construction of the new Baxter Elementary, all buildings are equipped with gymnasiums for public rental.
The performing arts center attached to Brainerd High School is scheduled to be done in the spring or summer of 2021, while new facilities at Garfield, Lowell and Riverside elementary schools, BHS south campus and the Brainerd Learning Center will open in fall 2021.
With new buildings come new and improved rental spaces and a chance for the district to recoup lost revenue due to both COVID-19 and the low fees charged for space rentals in the past. The new policy also aims to help the district manage the new and updated facilities and protect taxpayers’ investments in them.
While discussing a new fee schedule during their meeting Monday, Sept. 28, board members Bob Nystrom and Charles Black Lance advocated against higher fees for tax-exempt youth organizations but were in the minority when it came to a vote.
Under the district’s previous policy, student-focused organizations — like Brainerd Basketball Association and Brainerd Youth Athletic Association, for example — didn’t typically pay any fees to use district facilities except for any extra custodial fees. With the new policy, there will be a cost. Classrooms, conference rooms, locker rooms and gymnasiums, for example, now cost $10 for four or fewer hours, $20 for four to eight hours and $30 for more than eight hours. The gymnasium price is per court.
Larger spaces — like auditoriums, ball fields and stadiums — cost more. Community Education Director Cori Reynolds, who drafted the new fee schedule, said costs for all groups correlate to the size of the space.
Costs are broken up into four groups — district-sponsored, tax-exempt youth, tax-exempt adult and commercial or out of town. District-sponsored groups do not pay to rent spaces, and from there the costs increase for each group, with tax-exempt youth paying the least and commercial or out of town paying the most.
Dale Kugland, director of Brainerd Area Youth for Christ, brought concerns about the price increase before the board during the open forum portion of the meeting.
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He said his group has used Tornstrom Auditorium several times a year for the past 25 years for concerts, rallies, seminars and other events. But with the new fees, that would not be possible anymore.
Kugland said Youth For Christ typically rents the auditorium for two days at a time, which usually comes out to about $250, including extra custodial fees. Under the new policy that cost would be about $1,200-$1,300 for the space.
“I’m just asking that you would consider that,” he told board members, encouraging them to reach out to him if they had any further questions.
Though most tax-exempt youth organizations don’t usually pay for facilities, Reynolds said Kuglin’s group has always been an exception for some reason.
During the facilities discussion later in the meeting, Superintendent Laine Larson said the district should be able to work with Kuglin to find a solution, as there are other facilities that may be able to suit his needs at a lower cost.
Black Lance said he doesn’t want the fees to be too taxing on student-focused groups or force those groups to increase participation fees for kids. He already knows of some families, he said, that are priced out of these types of activities as it is. Nystrom said he couldn’t wrap his head around the idea of charging organizations that already volunteer their time to benefit the community’s youth. And the money the school would make wouldn’t amount to all that much, Nystrom said.
“Our community is hurting now because of the pandemic; the school district is hurting now. We have declining revenue. We have to make it up somehow,” Nystrom said, “but how about in this moment of this pandemic that we say, ‘We’re going to stand up for our community.’ And we say, ‘We have a lot of kids that can no longer afford to be in these, but if we can help some way — even just this little way by waiving the rent for these programs so that they can continue and these kids can still have a place to go.”
Board Chair Tom Haglin and member Ruth Nelson said the new policy seemed like a reasonable starting point, especially because the district is losing money with what it costs to operate facilities.
A gymnasium, Reynolds said, costs about $4.15 per hour to run, meaning even the increased prices for the youth organizations still has the district operating at a loss.
“Which I think is a pretty big investment that I think recognizes the value that these organizations bring to our community and to the students,” she added. “And I think it’s a fair trade off when resources are scarce. If we don’t find a way to collect something for the resources we’re expending here, we will have to redirect them away from the classroom and to these facilities.”
Reynolds noted she has not heard from organizations like Brainerd Basketball Association or Brainerd Youth Athletic Association about any hardships these costs would create.
Haglin suggested giving Reynolds the authority to work with groups who may have financial hardship and come up with some sort of an agreement that the board would then approve as a consent agenda item. Nelson said she liked that idea, and board member Sue Kern suggested working with organizations that have worked with the district for years, like Youth for Christ. But Kern said she doesn’t think anyone should get to pay nothing for the facilities.
Board member Reed Campbell said he agreed with the Black Lance and Nystrom’s sentiments but added the district needs to charge something.
The policy already allows district officials to negotiate fees for long-term agreements as seen fit. Reynolds said she would be happy to work with any cost-burdened groups, but because of the already existing provision, she would use her discretion sparingly.
When it came to a vote, Haglin, Nelson, Kern and Campbell approved the new policy, while Black Lance and Nystrom voted against it.