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Cloquet schools referendum: Frequently Asked Questions

Some of the following questions and answers came from a community forum in January where Superintendent Ken Scarbrough and Cloquet Middle School Principal Tom Brenner spoke, while others are summarized from information provided voters by the Cloq...

Some of the following questions and answers came from a community forum in January where Superintendent Ken Scarbrough and Cloquet Middle School Principal Tom Brenner spoke, while others are summarized from information provided voters by the Cloquet School District and previous Pine Journal articles.

 

Question: Why is a new middle school needed?

Answer: There are many reasons.

  • An increase in the district of more than 200 elementary school students over the past 10 years, combined with the advent of all-day kindergarten, has left Washington and Churchill elementary schools with no room to grow. Moving the fifth grade to a new middle school would alleviate that space issue.

  • Part of the current middle school was built 95 years ago, while other additions were completed in the 1950s. It’s old and reaching the point where the district will need to make very expensive investments in heating, plumbing and ventilation systems, as well as the roof.

  • The middle school lacks green space and parking and is located on busy Carlton Avenue. It also doesn’t meet modern security standards and wasn’t built for modern educational demands.

 
Q: What is the estimated cost and why is it so much higher than initial estimates for a new middle school?

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A: Referendum question 1 asks for $48,930,000 for a new middle school and additional repairs/security enhancements to other schools, while question 2 asks for an additional $6,915,000 for an 800-seat disability-accessible auditorium as part of the new middle school.

Initially, consultants put the costs of a new middle school at between $23 and $31 million, but early options (there were more than a dozen very minimal options outlined) only included plans for three grades, no swimming pool and no security enhancements at existing schools or other improvements/additions such as the relocation of Early Childhood classes and Community Education.

 

Q: Where would a new middle school be located?

A: The new middle school will be located on the south side of the high school. The entry to the front door of the middle school would be a circular driveway coming off Washington Avenue. Buses would drop middle school students in the parking lot by the tennis courts and a secure walking pathway would be available for them to enter the middle school. Another pathway also could be made to the middle school from the circular driveway which currently serves the high school.

 

Q: What is going to happen to the current middle school if the referendum is passed?

A: Currently, there is about $500,000 in the budget to demolish the current middle school. The school board is committed to not leaving the community with a danger zone or eyesore. The school district would be open to talking with responsible developers who may want to do something with that property. However, in order for that to happen, there would have to be legal guarantees that the developer would be willing to pour millions and millions of dollars into that building, so that it would become a community asset, not a community liability. If the district demolishes and clears the middle school, plans would be to sell the newly available lots, perhaps for as much as $300,000.

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Q: What is the group “Vote Yes Cloquet” and what is its connection to the school district? And why do their mailings have a Twin Cities mailing permit?

A: Vote Yes Cloquet committee is made up of local volunteers who want to see the referendum succeed. The committee organized in the fall of 2014 and fund-raised to get money to put signs up around the community in favor of voting “yes” to a new middle school, plus other advertising and mailings. Dozens of volunteers have also been canvassing or calling local residents to try to inform and encourage people to vote “yes” in recent weeks.

The steering committee chairs for the Vote Yes group is made up of local residents Jeff Leno, Lara Wilkinson, Ryanne Battaglia, Russ Smith and Dick Brenner.

The reason the mailing permit was from the Twin Cities is because the flyers were printed and mailed through the Education Minnesota Union, which is headquartered in the Twin Cities. The flyers were prepared  and paid for by the committee, however.

 

Q: What is the current capacity of the high school auditorium and would a new middle school auditorium replace that?

A: The current high school auditorium contains 580 seats. (This is a new number after an actual count of the seats, because the auditorium has been modified since it was built.) A new middle school auditorium would be in addition to the high school auditorium, because both the current high school and middle school auditoriums are well used. However, the current high school auditorium is too small to seat the whole student body, so any convocations are usually given twice: once to the freshmen and sophomore classes, once to the junior and senior classes. An 800-seat auditorium could be used for the whole student body along with various community purposes.

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Q: If a new middle school is built, will the grades be isolated from each other?

A: Yes, the new school is currently planned to hold four pods, one for each of grades 5-8, in the front section of the school. The students would mostly be separated in these academic areas, with some mingling on the way to or in activities areas such as the cafeteria, gymnasium, pool, industrial arts or media center. Instructional design would be different for the younger grades than the older ones.

 

Q: How would the state contribute if the referendum is passed?

A: Under current law, the state would pay about 30 percent of the bonds and the school district would pay about 70 percent. The legislature is looking at increasing equalization payments - that may or may not happen. The district does not receive any equalization payments on its existing debt.

 

Q: Is open-enrollment the cause of the space issues in the district?

A: No, Scarbrough said. Although he previously had stated that the district takes in about 200 more students K-12 than leave the district through open enrollment, the superintendent now says those numbers included Fond du Lac Ojibwe School students so were inflated. As of Wednesday morning, Scarbrough said actual head counts show Cloquet with 359 total open-enrolled students, but only 69 more students than enroll out of the school district. While the parents of open-enrolled students don’t pay taxes in this district, Scarbrough said the educational dollars the district gets for each student ranges from $6,000 to $10,000, depending on how the students are classified and what revenues might come with them from their home school district. The fact that the district has more students enrolling into Cloquet than are leaving “does not have much of an impact on our buildings because those students are spread out among 13 grades and five schools” a recent publication by the school district noted.

 

Q: Is there going to be a swimming pool, and where would it be located?

A: The swimming pool is included as part of the first question on the ballot, and it will be located in the middle school which is on the high school campus. Current plans show easy and covered access to the pool, so it would be much easier to access by the high school students. The girls swim team also would have a much better facility in which to

practice and hold meets.

Another consideration being made is that the swimming pool, gymnasium, and proposed auditorium can be shut off from the middle school main classroom areas. This would allow for the facilities to be used during the

day by high school students, when needed and also allow the facility to be used during non-school hours and on weekends by K-12 students and community members.

 

Q: Where would Community Education and Early Childhood classes go if the middle school is moved?

A: Community Education offices would be in the new middle school in order to make management of these areas much easier to be used, scheduled, and monitored by Community Education.

Early Childhood classes would be moved to new classrooms that would be constructed at Washington Elementary School if the referendum passes.

 

Q: The district and architects came up with the plan for a new middle school. Is there anyone like Johnson Controls in the background? (Johnson Controls handled the controversial Red Plan in Duluth, from the early planning and community feedback stages and then was hired as plan manager for the new construction and renovations in the district.)

A: “We didn’t use Johnson Controls,” Scarbrough said at the community forum, adding that the district is only paying for the study that showed facilities needs and possible solutions now. “If the referendum passes, I would recommend to the Board that we hire a construction manager to oversee the project, because we don’t want the ‘fox guarding the chicken house,’” he said.

 

Q: If the referendum doesn’t pass, how will the school district pay for $14 million in repairs?

A: The immediate strategy, Scarbrough said, would be to “fix it when it breaks.”

“With so little capital dollars in state funding for education, we would probably have to dip into some [general fund or operations] dollars if we didn’t get permission from the community to bond,” Scarbrough said at the community meeting in January, adding that might mean cuts to programming or increased class sizes.

Many school districts refigure plans and come back to voters with a revised referendum proposal, hoping voters will pass a different plan.

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