Thursday, December 12, 2019

District listens in hopes to revive failed referendum

After a special referendum for a new high school failed to pass last month, the Owatonna School District held a listening session during which members of the community were given the opportunity to share their opinions and discuss the next steps moving forward.

The session was held June 3 at the Owatonna Middle School with around 100 people from the community and the school district in attendance. Two more sessions are to be held later on in the summer.

“Tonight is about reflection and about listening and learning,” Owatonna Superintendent Jeff Elstad said at the start of the session. Elstad also told the crowd that such a large turnout demonstrated the passion of the community on this issue. “We all love our kids, and we love our education system, and we only want what’s best,” he said.

During the session, attendees were able to mingle in small and large groups and hammer out some possible concerns and thoughts raised by the referendum and the need for a new high school facility.

Architect Paul Aplikowski was also in attendance and fielded questions from the audience at the outset. “It’s fantastic that we have so many people here and I know that you all have different viewpoints,” Aplikowski said. “Our goal is to try to collect as much of that as we can and give it to the school board to try and figure out what to do next.”

The first category addressed after the group discussions was the matter of the proposed location. Some of the questions raised under this category were the whereabouts of the specific location of the proposed new building and the need for proper traffic flow and parking space.

Taxes and cost were another issue raised during the group discussions. People were interested in apples to apples comparisons as to the proposed cost and wanted to know how the money would be allocated to specific areas such athletics versus academics for instance. There was also a lot of discussion on the current state of the farm economy and the impact taxes could have on that.

Economic concerns were also raised over other projects, which are slated for the city and county, and the potential increase in cost for taxpayers those would incur. Recent value assessments were also addressed as a potential roadblock in convincing taxpayers that now is the time to share the load for the cost this new facility.

There were also questions over the fate of the existing building should a future referendum pass. Some of the key points discussed were what should be done with the building and whether or not the intention of the original referendum was for demolition.

Some security and maintenance concerns that people had involved on-site parking and the lack of accessibility for those with mobility issues. Maintenance costs were also touched upon, as they are currently outpacing funding. The comparison of operating costs between the old building and a new building were also discussed.

Career pathways for students and the need for a new facility in order to pursue this avenue was something that was also brought to the forefront. People wondered if the school should be focused on test scores or job training. There were also questions over whether a better facility would lead to better test scores.

Another discussion was on the amenities of the proposed future edifice. Folks wondered whether the intention was to build a community center or a school, and members of the district did note that the current high school does host many events throughout the year and serves the community in multiple capacities.

Those in attendance also wished to know the look and plans for any possible building. It was expressed by people at the session that a conceptual design would better help sell the potential new school to the community and help those in favor of the proposed facility get an impression of how it might function and look.

The possibility of partnerships within the community and with local businesses was also mentioned. Those in attendance were curious about whether sales tax could help eleviate the costs as well as whether businesses would have more input on what they need in terms of job training possibilities.

“I love the community more than I ever have tonight, because of this discussion we’re having tonight,” Superintendent Elstad said at the close of the session. Despite the high turnout at this initial session, the district hopes to get even more people involved in future sessions.

Overall, it was a good example for civil discourse and community involvement. “This was a real success tonight, and I cannot be more proud to have so many people in the community who are so engaged and passionate about education and the education of our young people,” Elstad said.

“Based upon what we learn from all three sessions we will start to sort out what the solutions are going to be moving forward,” Elstad explained of the potential next steps in this process.

The next two sessions are tentatively scheduled for June 25 at 6:00 p.m. and sometime after the week of the Fourth of July. The school district will be providing additional information and updates on its website.


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