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Guest commentaries: Writers weigh in on Cromwell-Wright building referendum

On Tuesday, Nov. 7, voters in the Cromwell-Wright School District will vote “yes” or “no” on a $5.08 million building referendum for school facility improvements. The proposal includes a new industrial arts addition, dedicated band and choir space, updated auditorium, gymnasium addition, dedicated weight room space and parking lot improvements and expansion.

Below, two Cromwell-area residents weigh in on why they believe voters should vote “no” or “yes.” These are the opinions of the writers — not the Pine Journal.

Voters can find more information on the referendum on the Cromwell-Wright School District website at www.isd95.org, under the “Recent News” tab, which also includes a property tax calculator. Residents can also contact Superintendent Nathan Libbon at 218-644-3716 ext. 1004 with questions.

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VOTE YES

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Why Cromwell-Wright community-builders will vote ‘yes’

By Ann Markusen

Imagine where our Cromwell-Wright children and youth would be educated today if area voters had not, on Nov. 6, 1990, voted overwhelmingly to authorize borrowing, not to exceed $6.8 million, to build a new school. The vote was 552 in favor and 204 against — 73 percent affirming, almost 3 to 1.

In that era, the State of Minnesota was encouraging smaller school districts to consolidate in order to reduce the numbers of rural schools. The old three-story Cromwell school, built in 1913, violated fire codes.

“It was like a chimney,” then-Superintendent Herb Hilinski recalls. It lacked handicapped access. The science lab failed state requirements. Wright’s K-6 school struggled with similar safety and accessibility issues.

If the two schools had closed, our students would have been dispersed to Barnum, Floodwood and McGregor schools. Many would have had hour-plus bus rides each way. Majorities would not have been able to participate in after-school activities.

Borrowing for investment in our future is not a bad practice. From our personal lives, we know that wise and carefully planned investments are necessary. College educations. Homeownership. A safer car. These pay off over time in jobs, income and quality of life.

It’s a good time for our community to invest in eliminating chronic structural deficits and expanding learning opportunities. And, to offer community members more access to space and activities. Interest rates are low. The state of Minnesota will contribute an additional $1.1 million over 19 years — $50,000 to $60,000 per year, if the vote passes.

Past school borrowing has mostly been paid off. We have recently received sizeable school tax reductions as past voter-approved levies expired. In 2016, owners of a $150,000 homestead in an unorganized township paid 17.7 percent less for voter-approved levies in 2016 than they did in 2015 and another 17.6 percent less in 2017 than they paid in 2016.  

The 1993 rebuilding and expansion of our school yielded enduring benefits for students and the community. Although it was painful for Wright to lose its K-6 school, the consolidation brought the two communities closer together. The quality of our school and its staff has attracted more people, including excellent teachers, to raise families here. More graduates chose to stay and build homes, reinforcing intergenerational families.

For many months, the school’s board, leadership, staff and community members have worked through scenarios and priorities: improved industrial arts space and offerings, including auto mechanics; a functional second gym for games, practice and grade school and community activities; and space for music practice and performance and for community education, including dance, Zumba, kung fu, archery, yoga and lifetime fitness.

The cost is minimal. On a homesteaded property with estimated market value of $150,000, the annual school tax increase will be $159 for 2018. The same home will receive a $52 reduction in existing school debt levies for 2018. The net change will be $107 — $9 a month. Some taxpayers are eligible for state and federal tax credits and refunds on these increases.

I understand why property taxes are so broadly disliked. They are imperfect tools for raising funds for community projects. They are not levied on an ability to pay. Many retired people who live on fixed incomes are particularly challenged. If public schools were funded through income taxes, as state contributions to our school finances are, our tax contributions would be more closely geared to ability to pay.

Recent votes on school consolidation and bond issues have failed in Wrenshall and Carlton. You could read impassioned, sometimes vitriolic, letters to the editor in 2017 issues of the Pine Journal. In contrast, beautiful new schools in Barnum and Moose Lake emerged recently from challenging circumstances, healthy debate and volunteerism.

If the bond issue passes, there will be many opportunities for input into how facilities upgrades will roll out. After Cromwell’s positive 1990 vote for the new school, dozens and dozens of people joined in design discussions with the school board and staff.

The students loved it. They wrote in the 1993-94 yearbook, “Changing Faces:”

“Change — Some of us like it, some of us don’t. There has been a big change in the Cromwell-Wright community this year. A new K-12 school opened in September of 1993 … Our world is full of changes. Some are good; some are not. One thing that remains constant is this community’s support for its educational institution and the people responsible for educating its young people. The caring and nurturing that are part of belonging in the Cromwell-Wright family, whether you are a student, a teacher, an administrator, a parent, a grandparent, a relative or a friend, you are part of the community family. Changes take place whether we like them or not. I think we can all agree that we like the changes that have happened in our school district this year. Changes that will guarantee a future for I.S.D. 95 for years to come.”

And, they have!

Ann Markusen is a Red Clover resident and also owner of a seasonal family home in the city of Cromwell.

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VOTE NO

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It’s not all or nothing — vote ‘no’ for a better plan

Shari Hutar

I was on the Cromwell-Wright School board from 2002 to 2014 and I know the decision about the current referendum will have a huge impact on educational decisions in the future.

It is important to understand that if this referendum does not pass, the changes needed for the shop and music/theater areas will still happen.

A little history. Cromwell-Wright was a part of the Maximum Effort School Loan program (1992) through the state, which had a maximum required levy tax rate attached to it. While in that program we were able to do one-day bond sales which were used to build a bus garage, repair a gym wall, buy playground equipment, add elementary classrooms, computers, etc. We didn’t need referendums.

Since 2014, the school has had the money saved for the remodeling and addition of the shop that would almost double the size to more than 5,000 square feet. When the loan was refunded last year, the school received $180,000 for five years. In addition, at the Oct. 11 board meeting, a (potential) revenue surplus of $684,000 for 2017 was revealed.

Here are some other points to consider:

  • The current shop size is 2,920 square feet. The proposed shop in the referendum is 9,000 square feet (three times bigger). No new teaching positions or new equipment are included.    
  • Approximately 75 percent of the school budget is for staffing, which is the first area to cut if there are budget issues. There have been numerous cuts at Cromwell-Wright to balance the budget and create financial stability. Our school is small and, unless we stay financially solid, we could be forced to make difficult decisions.
  • We are not in a situation where we can’t afford to keep the doors to Cromwell-Wright School open without this referendum, but we may be in the future if we pass the referendum! Cromwell-Wright has declining enrollment. Increasing the size of a school facility does not make it more affordable, nor does that make people want their children to come here (not to mention they will pay higher tax rate). It’s the quality of education you provide, the people who work in the school and the community that surrounds it, that will draw people.
  • A number of class offerings have been eliminated. We have students who are now taking classes twice over in some cases due to lack of class options. This needs to be addressed!
  • To my knowledge, there has never been a safety injury related to the size of our small gym.    
  • Telepresence, Post Secondary Enrollment Options (PSEO), College In the Schools(CIS) and Honors classes cost our school money as we pay colleges and schools for those services. PSEO, CIS and Honors classes also have GPA and other requirements. They are good options for college-bound students, but there is a need to provide opportunities for all our students.
  • The current parking lot design was to minimize speeds, reduce costs and for student safety.

The following is referenced from the Review and Comment sent to the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) by the Cromwell Wright administration (a copy of this is available at the school):

  • After the $1,091,952 in aid is subtracted, and the $1.2 million from school fund balance is subtracted, this referendum will put the taxpayers in debt for a total of $13,438,316 (This includes the $7,065,594 of previous debt from the state loan of 1992). –page 10
  • Taxes without the new referendum would drop our tax rate (not the percent of taxes you pay) to 19.5 percent in 2018. If the referendum passes, it will increase our tax rate to 32.09 percent. –page 9
  • “The geothermal field expansion feasibility is TBD within base budget.” (The original installer of this loop field stated that “increasing the loop field is a difficult and expensive undertaking.” There is very little room for geothermal expansion for heating/cooling and no room in the current loop field). –page 14
  • Enrollment in Cromwell-Wright school is projected to drop to 281 students in 2020-21. –page 3.

There are no definite plans to utilize the vacant auditorium, small gym and old stage area. Yet we will continue to heat and maintain these areas.

The financial representative from Ehlers stated at the informational meeting that the taxes controlled by our school board are currently “maximized.”

If you look at your property tax statement under the school district category, “A” is Voter Approved Levies, which has our current debt, and “B” is Other Local Levies (school-board controlled levies). Compare each amount in the year 2014 and compare it to 2017. The increase in other local levies is significant!

This is a big reason for the money in the school fund balance at this time. These are taxes we are paying as taxpayers, not money generated by school revenue. The debt amount for the Voter Approved Levies will almost double to $13,438,316 (page 10), as will the taxes you pay on this portion of school taxes.

Everyone in this Cromwell-Wright community has Cardinal pride. This is about the future of Cromwell-Wright School. Please vote.

Cromwell resident Shari Hutar served on the Cromwell-Wright School Board for 12 years and has had three children go through the school district.

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