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Cloquet voters say ‘yes’ to a new middle school

Cloquet voters voted "yes" to a new middle school on Tuesday, but "no" to an 800-seat auditorium to go with that school. Votes were hand counted after a day that saw 2,929 votes cast at the Cloquet Armory, with the final tallies coming in about 1...

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Members of the “Vote Yes” group celebrate the news that voters approved a bond referendum question Tuesday that included more than $48 million to build a new middle school and make improvements to other schools. The group gathered at Carmen’s to await the final vote count together. Jana Peterson/jpeterson@pinejournal.com

Cloquet voters voted "yes" to a new middle school on Tuesday, but "no" to an 800-seat auditorium to go with that school.

Votes were hand counted after a day that saw 2,929 votes cast at the Cloquet Armory, with the final tallies coming in about 10:40 p.m.

According to district officials and election judges, 1,575 people voted "yes" on Question 1 (including 202 absentee votes), while 1,350 voted "no" (including 162 absentee votes) so the bond referendum passed by 225 votes. 

On Question 2, there were 1,324 "yes" votes (174 absentee) versus 1,587 "no" votes (188 absentee), so the measure failed by 260 votes.

Question 1 asked voters to replace the Cloquet Middle School with a new facility, including a swimming pool, at an estimated cost of $48,930,000. The new school would be located on the south side of the high school on land already owned by the district. Question 1 of the bond referendum also included money to increase security measures, including remodeling and/or expansion of the entrances and office areas at the high school and both elementary schools in the district as well as funding for deferred maintenance for all district facilities.

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Question 2 asked voters to add a new $6,915,000, 800-seat auditorium to the project, raising the total tab to $53.7 million. It failed.

The polls were open at the Cloquet Armory from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday, but election judges and election administrator Bonnie Monfeldt got there even earlier, said Monfeldt, adding that she met the head judges there at 5:45 a.m.

By the time the votes were tallied - and some of them retallied - just after 10:30, the 15 judges had been on the job for 16-and-a-half hours.

Coffee helps. One judge, Carla Houle, tallied the number of cups she drank from start to finish on Tuesday - 22. Houle was still lively at the end, and steady.

“I’ve been drinking coffee since I was 5,” she said. “It doesn’t bother me.”

Monfeldt said there was a steady stream of voters pretty much all day long, in spite of the snow that fell all afternoon.

Superintendent Ken Scarbrough was quietly pleased with the day, which saw a total of 2,929 votes cast out of 8,000 total possible voters, or 36.6 percent.

“We’re very happy with the voter turnout today,” he said. “And I’m super pleased with the kind of dialogue we’ve had during this election. The amount of support shown for the school district and our students was absolutely outstanding. It makes me proud to be superintendent of a district where we can have such good dialogue and such great turnout to decide the issues.”

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Some of the first (outside of election judges) to know the results were members of the “Vote Yes” group, many of whom gathered at Carmen’s restaurant on Big Lake Road to await the news.

Cloquet Middle School Principal Tom Brenner and his wife, Michelle, were there, as were Cloquet School Board members Dan Danielson and Duane Buytaert. Vote Yes notables including Ryanne Battaglia, Lara Wilkinson and Jeff Leno along with at least a dozen others were hugging each other and cheering the “yes” vote.

Leno said he was relieved and happy.

“We are providing an adequate school for my kids (he has two still in diapers) and for many generations to come,” said the Cloquet native. “But it’s more than that. All along I’ve challenged people to find a strong community with weak schools or vice versa. We feel this school will help strengthen our community. There are a lot of reasons this is good for Cloquet.”

He expressed surprise, however, at how close the vote was, but said it made him certain that their efforts had made a difference.

“But [the close vote] is all the more reason why we as a community need to be involved as we move forward to make sure this is done right: the plans, the concepts … that we’re not only satisfied, but it fits the needs for generations to come,” Leno said. “Our focus from now moving forward is making sure it’s done right so even the ‘no’ voters are satisfied.”

Richard Colsen couldn’t agree more.

Colsen, a former school board candidate who unofficially became the voice of those who opposed the idea of a new middle school at this time, said he was also feeling relieved Tuesday night.

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“It’s over. … and I think it’s a good compromise,” he added, referring to the fact that Question 1 passed, while the new auditorium failed. “I respect the voting process. The community sees the needs and wants to take on [a building project] but, at the same time, put the brakes on ‘over the top’ spending.”

Colsen said he felt the “vote no” side brought a good balance to the information put out by the school district and the “vote yes” group, something Scarbrough also noted earlier in the evening.

“I think we helped raise awareness,” Colsen said.

He plans to continue attending school board meetings and keep asking questions, noting that he and about a dozen others will rotate in and out of meetings in the hopes that they can help the district and the board find ways to control spending, like installing a salt water pool instead of a traditional pool to save on chemicals.

Brenner talked about how grateful he is that the community supported improved academic facilities, and offered thanks for all the hard work that people put into getting the referendum passed. He was a little sad about the auditorium, noting that he has a daughter who loves the performing arts. Maybe the district or the community will find other ways to improve existing facilities, he said.

Still, Brenner, who grew up in Cloquet, went to middle school here and who has been principal at the middle school for 12 years, had a certain glow about him after the results were announced.

“I couldn’t be happier,” he said. “It’s so needed.”

At the same time, he acknowledged that buildings are not the most critical part of a good education: students, teachers and parents are.

“We do the best we can with what we have,” he said. “Our quality of education is superb, and that’s built on the people inside the building more than anything. But there are certain things we couldn’t do with the kids in a 100-year-old building.”

The projects are planned for construction in calendar years 2015-2017, with major construction likely taking place in 2016.

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Superintendent Ken Scarbrough and Bonnie Monfeldt, the district’s election supervisor, look over the final numbers in Tuesday’s referendum vote at about 10:40 p.m. Tuesday. Jana Peterson/jpeterson@pinejournal.com

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