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District building plan takes lessons from others

When it comes to determining how to build new school buildings, you can either do it like Duluth — or not — depending on who you talk to.

The Duluth Public Schools’ famous “Red Plan” renovated or built new buildings all across the district at a cost of $300 million or more — again, depending on who you talk to.

The Cloquet School District’s plans aren’t anywhere near that large, but replacing the 94-year-old Cloquet Middle School is a top priority, as is easing the space crunch for the district’s two elementary schools.

One thing is for certain, though — the Cloquet School Board is watching, and learning, from Duluth’s experiences in building new facilities to learn the best way to upgrade its own buildings.

The biggest difference, of course, is that the Duluth schools didn’t hold a public referendum before levying the cost of new buildings. Cloquet has never entertained that thought, so its goal is to determine what people want and how to provide it in a way that will pass a referendum vote.

Hermantown recently did it, passing a $48.9 million-referendum to re-purpose the high school and replace their 77-year-old middle school.  Cloquet officials watched that process closely.

“For a long time, some say that Cloquet has had the reputation of ‘doing it on the cheap’ when it comes to facilities for kids,” board member Jim Crowley said. “We can’t do that anymore, and even though we want to be responsible for our taxpayers, we need to do something.”

Repair estimates recently provided by district consultants indicate that the middle school alone is in need of $13 million worth of repair and renovation, mostly to the HVAC systems and for needed maintenance such as tuck pointing.

But to make the case for building plans and programs, school districts need to reach the taxpayers. Cloquet has held four public meetings on facilities, with the fifth and final meeting scheduled for Monday, March 31, at the high school.

“Most people say they haven’t heard much about it, and that’s what we’re fighting,” Board Chair Gary Huard said.

Getting the word out isn’t easy. Katie Kaufman of the Duluth Public Schools said that her district put together a Citizens Advisory Committee which helped carry the load of public engagement, holding over 120 community meetings and 12 city-wide town halls. That committee was made up of district personnel and representatives from the district’s consulting firms.

The Hermantown referendum proponents nearly outdid Duluth.

According to the pro-referendum group “Hawk Pride,” four separate citizen committees were formed consisting of over 200 people, with each group handling a specific area of building improvement and handling outreach.  The group also held 14 public meetings.

Cloquet hasn’t held that many meetings and doesn’t have a for-purpose advisory committee, but has tried other means including online surveys to spread the word.

“We’ve tried very hard to address the question of ‘How do you reach people?’” Cloquet Schools Business Manager Kim Josephson said.

“The problem we’ve had is that at our meetings, which have been well attended, the majority of people there have ‘skin in the game,’ which means they’re either parents with kids in the district or staff members,” Board member Duane Buytaert added. “That said, we’re a small town so we probably aren’t going to get Duluth-type involvement.”

Part of the problem is that some taxpayers don’t know what will be included in the final projects upon which they will be asked to vote.

“That’s what the public meetings have been for,” Huard said. “How much do we spend and which way do we go?”

For example, one key takeaway from each public meeting so far is that a new pool at a new middle school and an expanded auditorium look like they’ll be in the final plan. But how to get to that point, and how to determine final costs, is a bit stickier.

“There’s a big difference between coming to a public meeting and saying ‘I support a pool’ and then signing off on a property tax increase to actually do it,” Buytaert said.

That’s where a consultant comes in. Duluth used Johnson Controls throughout its process, including overseeing construction of the new buildings, which created controversy. Hermantown used that company for the first two phases of its building project, which involved engaging the community and conducting facility assessments, but decided to work as its own construction manager on its latest facilities project.

But Cloquet never sought the advice of Johnson Controls, perhaps fearing negative backlash, and the company did not bid on any part of the district’s consulting process. But community engagement has been a problem in Cloquet according to Superintendent Ken Scarbrough, and it wasn’t as big an issue in either Duluth or Hermantown.

“Our phones haven’t been ringing,” Huard said.

To help combat that issue, the district has commissioned a scientific phone survey of residents, a practice which was also done in Hermantown.  Cloquet’s latest online survey also drew over 500 responses from residents.

But, with Duluth and Hermantown’s experiences being front of mind, Cloquet board members have learned a lot.

“The thing about Duluth’s projects is that there were so many of them, they provided us with a lot of examples of building to look at,” Buytaert said.  “We can learn from that and get examples of ideas and combinations.”

Even if a referendum is passed and a new middle school is built, the debate may not end.

“The biggest problem is what we’ll do with the existing middle school,” Huard said. “Will the city of Cloquet rezone the site, will we tear it down, will some part of the building stay up or remain in use?”

The Duluth schools floated the possibility of re-selling some properties, most notably the former Central High School atop the hill, but to date that potential revenue enhancer hasn’t happened.

So, how will the district move forward once its public meetings are over and recommendations are made to the board, a process which is expected to happen next month?

Opponents of Duluth’s Red Plan argued that the process wasn’t open enough, and Cloquet’s board members are well aware of it.

“We didn’t name any of our plans, for one thing,” Buytaert joked.

“The main thing is transparency,” board member Dan Danielson said. “Transparency  and communication.”

Even as Cloquet prepares to move forward with its plans, the one thing board members don’t want to hear are complaints from angry citizens who say they weren’t informed about the process.

“I think we’ve made a good effort for outreach,” board member Ted Lammi said. “Phone surveys, online surveys, scientific surveys. We’ve made the effort.”

The success of those efforts will soon become apparent — or not — depending on who you talk to.