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Grand Rapids proposes new elementary schools

This image shows the proposed Cohasset elementary improvements. Image courtesy of Grand Rapids School District1 / 4
The Grand Rapids school district’s April referendum includes improvements to athletics facilities and the installation of turf on three sports fields. Image courtesy of Grand Rapids School District2 / 4
This image shows the east Grand Rapids site. Image courtesy of Grand Rapids School District3 / 4
This image shows the west Grand Rapids site. Image courtesy of Grand Rapids School District4 / 4

The Grand Rapids school district is asking residents to approve the construction of two new elementary schools and expand an existing elementary school to address what it calls a "severe" space shortage in the district.

School district voters will head to the polls on April 10 for a $74 million referendum with two questions. The first asks whether to close three elementary schools, one of which would be repurposed for early childhood education, and then construct two new larger elementary schools in Grand Rapids and expand the Cohasset elementary school. The second question, which can only pass if the first question passes, asks whether to improve the athletic facilities in the district.

Question one's cost is $68.9 million and question two's cost is $5 million. The district has received additional funding from sources that include the Minnesota Department of Education and the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board to cover costs exceeding the referendum's total cost of $74 million. If the referendum passes, the tax increase for a home valued at $150,000 would be $8.30 per month, according to the district.

Superintendent Joni Olson said the new schools are needed due to the district's increasing elementary school enrollment.

"Our space issues are only continuing to increase and the plan that's been put forward by our Elementary Facilities Task Force and Activities Facilities Task Force helps in meeting those needs in a significant way while providing a plan that is also conservative and cost-effective for taxpayers," Olson said.

However, the referendum faces opposition from some, such as Tony Kotula of Grand Rapids, who are concerned that the tax increase could negatively impact the financial health of residents in the area. Grand Rapids' poverty rate is around 18 percent and the Iron Range's mining and timber industries could face issues in the future, said Kotula, who helps with the Itasca Taxpayers Alliance Facebook page.

"There's a lot of fear in the area, not just from what's going to happen, but our taxes are skyrocketing. Are you building these schools that are going to be half empty in 10 years?" Kotula said.

Kotula said he'd like to see the existing schools remodeled and, if needed in the future, one new school built, because he questions the district's statements about increasing enrollment. He said he'd prefer the district focus on the core standards and improving standardized test scores rather than spending money on new items such as iPads for the students to use.

This is the district's second attempt to gain voter approval for the project's funding after a previous, more expensive referendum failed in 2015. In response to that outcome, task forces were convened to vet more options for the schools and athletic facilities. A task force of about 200 community members began meeting in 2015 to research and narrow down 20 options to the plan going before the voters in the April referendum, district spokeswoman Jessica Setness said. A second task force completed a similar effort for the athletics facilities.

District enrollment in kindergarten through fifth grade has increased by about 200 students in the past decade, according to the Minnesota Department of Education. The district states that it has also had an increase of students in early childhood education, which is impacting available space at the elementary schools. The district is leasing 14 portable classrooms; nearly 20 percent of elementary instruction occurs in portable spaces that take up parking lot and playground space, according to the district. Fifth-graders were moved to the middle schools to alleviate crowding, but officials say that's causing crowding in the middle schools. If the new elementary schools were constructed, the fifth-graders would be moved back.

The district closed an elementary school a decade ago and demolished it in 2011. Kotula said he believes the school should have been remodeled instead of torn down.

"People don't want these large, institutional schools," Kotula said. "A lot of people like the old neighborhood schools and they're making those disappear. That's making a lot of people upset."

Setness explained that due to the space shortage, elementary students are attending whichever school has space rather than going to the school that's in their neighborhood. District administration believes that the new elementary schools will become neighborhood schools, Setness said.

"Earlier this year, we had to close kindergarten enrollment at two of our elementary schools and so the kindergartners could actually live right across the street from one of those schools and end up at a different one," Setness said.

She explained that the closed-and-demolished elementary school needed "significant maintenance. It was filled with asbestos; even if we still had that property, because it's in an airport flight path, we wouldn't be able to have a school there."

Remodeling the three existing elementary schools isn't possible based on current Minnesota Department of Education guidelines, Setness said. To meet the state's current requirements for school site sizes, the district would have to purchase properties surrounding the schools that have homes on them, Setness said. To construct the new elementary schools, the district is planning on a land exchange with the city of Grand Rapids instead of purchasing new land.

Looking ahead to the district's predicted enrollment, the new schools will be constructed to hold the minimum expected enrollment number, with the ability to add on if needed, Setness said.

For more information, visit isd318.org/page/3165.

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