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The elephant in the room


Fri, May 12th, 2006
Posted in Commentary

I graduated from New Ulm Public High School way back sometime in the last century. New Ulm is a town of about 15,000 in south central Minnesota, surrounded by many small towns, most of them without their own schools by the time I graduated.

But one little nearby town, Nicollet, east of New Ulm on highway 14, population around 700 in those days, still had a school. In the summer of 1985, people began noticing more cracks on the outside of the 1916 building, especially near the roof. An architectural firm was called in and determined that the roof was deteriorating and pushing on the outside walls. What a surprise for everyone when the firm concluded that there was a greater than fifty percent chance the roof would collapse soon.

For the past two years, Iíve been covering the Rushford-Peterson school board meetings for the Fillmore County Journal. After sitting in on the regular monthly meetings, and special meetings for all this time, I have developed a much greater respect for the job school board members do. I am humbled by the responsibility they carry.

In 1985, the Nicollet school board suddenly faced some extremely difficult decisions. They invited past board members to join them in at least one meeting. Almost immediately, they voted to close the 1916 building, even though school was scheduled to start in a couple of weeks. The decision was made slightly easier when the fire marshal informed the district that if they didnít immediately close the school, he would go all the way to the attorney general to make sure the school was closed.

The board appointed a citizen committee to study the issue that fall, and the committee, after looking at options like remodeling, or building only a new high school, voted 26-1 to build a new K-12 school in Nicollet. It was the least costly of the options, at least at that time.

In a few weeks, my friendís daughter will be part of the graduating class of 2006, the nineteenth class to graduate from the new Nicollet Public school. The population of Nicollet has grown to about 900. Graduating classes are often fewer than thirty. An addition to provide more space in the school was just completed.

Four years ago in the R-P district, we had a referendum for a new school that was soundly defeated. Yet the facilities issue continues to be the elephant in the room.

Like others in the district, I hear stories from students and staff about problems with the facilityóthings like falling ceiling tiles and newly painted walls already showing water stains from the inside. Iíve heard anecdotal evidence of students and staff feeling ill from the air quality, of keeping windows open in the middle of winter to avoid headaches by noon. I have no way of knowing if each of these stories is valid, but there must be ways of verifying them.

There is a lot of talk at board meetings about declining enrollment, but as we all know, predicting the future is an iffy business. Whatís frustrating is that we canít really know what the enrollment will be in ten years. We can only guess, but some of the guesses donít look that bad. My sonís class of sixty is one of the largest classes in recent yearsóand heís only a first grader. Still, how do we know how many children will be born in the next several years?

One thing that does seem certain is that more and more young families are ďschool shopping,Ē making decisions about where exactly theyíll live by the quality of the school in a district. So one might predict that doing nothing to improve aging facilities, except to fix things as they break, is almost certain to contribute to declining enrollment.

Business analogies have become popular, but the bottom line is still that school is not exactly like a business. Predictions of declining enrollment do not release us from our legal or moral obligations to the students we have right now. Itís not the same thing as, say, an owner of a bowling alley deciding not to double the number of lanes because bowling league participation is declining. That business owner is under no obligation to provide bowling for the area.

Some of those who were dead set against a new school four years ago remain so. In facilities discussions, words like ďfutureĒ and ďplanningĒ seem to suggest to some that someoneís trying to push a new school down their throats, and they completely stop listening. On the other side, there are still those who think a brand new facility is the only acceptable answer, and they have a hard time listening to solutions that offer anything less than that. Even in four years, the economy has changed, most would say for the worse. A brand new facility is a dream, and so is the idea that we can continue to only react to problems with aging facilities as they occur.

Itís time for both extremes to take at least one step toward the other. The best answer is somewhere between a letís-just-keep-fixing-things-as-they-break mentality, and a new-school-or-nothing point of view. To find that answer, we need to know some things. How much are we currently spending on repairs and maintenance? What kinds of options are out there for improving our facilities, and what do they cost?

And we canít just expect the school board and administration to do everything. Itís easy to sit back and criticize and offer opinions, but what we really need to do is help out with information gathering and researching. As citizens, we need to get involved.

Years ago, when I worked in advertising, my boss had an unusual saying. He would often quip, ďItís time to do something, even if itís wrong.Ē Back then, his saying just confirmed my belief that he was an odd little man. But Iím starting to see the wisdom in that expression.

The thing that makes some decisions so difficult is when you canít know, with certainty, exactly what the outcome will beóno matter how much information you collect. What is scarier than the unknown? But gathering accurate, significant information is still the best way to make the wisest possible decisions. None of us can absorb that information if we stop listening.

I think what my old boss meant was that there are also times when the worst thing you can do is delay. Sometimes, the results of non-action can be disastrous.

Bonnie Prinsen lives in Rushford.

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