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What next? Cloquet voters will decide Tuesday if district will build a new middle school

It's been almost two years since the Cloquet School Board began a serious public discussion about building a new middle school at a March 2013 meeting when members voted to hire a consulting firm to do a detailed assessment of district facilities.

New 95 years ago
This portion of the middle school is used for sixth grade and Community Education now, but was built as the city's high school after the fire of 1918 destroyed the old school. Contributed Photo

It’s been almost two years since the Cloquet School Board began a serious public discussion about building a new middle school at a March 2013 meeting when members voted to hire a consulting firm to do a detailed assessment of district facilities.

That study came back three months later with an estimated repair/maintenance bill of nearly $16 million districtwide, with the bulk of the problems ($14 million) at Cloquet Middle School. Since then the Board and members of the public have debated repair versus building new, how and what and where to build, and how much new debt residents might tolerate from the district.

Now Cloquet voters will vote on two separate bond referendum questions Tuesday at the Cloquet Armory.

The first question will ask 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.

The final facilities plan as passed by Cloquet School Board members last summer includes the following items:

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  • Build a new middle school for grades 5-8 (with separate learning areas for each grade) and relocate early childhood programs to elementary schools and community education services to the new middle school;

  • Include an eight-lane swimming pool with the new middle school as well as a new gymnasium;

  • 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; and

  • Include funding for deferred maintenance for district facilities.

A second question will ask voters to add a new $6,915,000, 800-seat auditorium to the project, raising the total tab to $53.7 million.
The passage of the second referendum question is contingent on the passage of the first question. The projects would be scheduled for completion in calendar years 2015-2017.

Polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 10, at the National Guard Armory, 801 Highway 33 North (across Armory Road from McDonald’s restaurant) in Cloquet. Voters can vote absentee before then at the county auditor’s office on the second floor of the Carlton County Courthouse in Carlton from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. this Thursday and Friday, Saturday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. and Monday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Advocates for the plan point to the fact that portions of the current middle school are 95 years old, and many of the systems - heating, ventilation, plumbing, the roof(s) - are in need of replacement, which would be very expensive and still leave Cloquet with a middle school that is old, land-locked, adjacent to a busy street, lacks parking and is not built for modern educational demands. Nor does it meet post-school-shooting standards for security. Finally, moving the fifth grade from the elementary schools to a new middle school would free up needed space at Washington and Churchill schools.

Opponents are split on the need for a new middle school, with some arguing that the current building is “good enough” and the district should find money to make needed investments while others argue that the district needs to pay off its existing debt and/or put together a better and more affordable long-term plan for all the facilities in the district, including a new middle school.

In short, it’s complicated and it’s an issue that’s been unfolding for years.

Editor’s note: If you’ve just heard about the vote and want to educate yourself, it’s not too late. See Page A4 in this week’s Pine Journal for opinions representing both sides, and find Frequently Asked Questions about the referendum on Page A8 as well as a story on the district’s existing debt. Please find links to numerous past Pine Journal stories at www.pinejournal.com under “Past stories on middle schools issues, referendum plans.”

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