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REVISED - Letter: DL school bond will make buildings more safe, secure

After speaking with many residents of the area with regards to this falls bond election I feel compelled to address the issues regarding the cost and location of the proposed property for the new elementary and the overall scope of the various projects. I have lived in Detroit Lakes since 1968 and together with my wife raised four children and all were graduates of Detroit Lakes Public Schools. My working experience at the District spans 20 plus years.

Over the past several years the District has been seriously considering what must be done to address the serious space issues at our schools. Several firms were employed to assist with this process and all of them came to very similar conclusions. During this time frame the citizens of the District would often inquire of me about the news they were hearing of a possible new elementary school. When I would tell them that a new elementary was in discussions the first question I would be asked is, “Where will it be built?” Today, when I talk with people about the new elementary they no longer inquire of the location but are concerned about the cost of the land.

So let me speak about this land issue. As the Districts Supervisor of Operations and Transportation Director I was extensively involved in scouting for an acceptable piece of property sufficient in size to construct the proposed elementary school. I spent hours on Google Map, the County Web Map, walking through slews, wading through snow and driving in every direction in search of the right spot. All the while mindful of the many obstacles of avoiding airport flight paths, natural gas lines, railroads, slews, proximity to lakes, poor elevation and drainage ditches. Included in the considerations were things such as transportation, appropriate adjoining property, adequate size and available public utilities. Another consideration was that the owner had to be willing to sell. The School Board did not want to exercise eminent domain. City property along Tower Road was considered but this property was developed with the use of Federal grants for the intended purpose of industrial development.

After months of searching and consideration the property at the corner of Tower and Richwood Road became the best location. One thing all of our present school locations have in common now is not enough land for any significant expansion but this 40 acre property provides that option. The land has good elevation and contour and can be approached from three different directions which are favorable for car and bus vehicle access. Market forces eventually played into the agreed price of the land. Overall the cost of the land will amount to about one percent of the cost of the bond. So, the next question I am asked is, “Why pay $15,000 for the right to purchase?” My answer is to consider this; “The District doesn’t have money in a cookie jar right now to purchase outright,” so this amount secures the land and answers the question of, “Where?” Also, with passage of the bond election this amount will be applied to the cost of the land. Another big consideration in the cost of land is the close proximity to City water, sewer, natural gas and fire hydrant system. To extend these services one mile could cost upwards of $900,000. So if cheaper land were obtained a mile from City services the utility costs could quickly negate any savings and it would be another mile further from town. The location is quite central to the District and easily accessed. Whether you live in Callaway or on the southeast side of Lake Melissa it will be about a 14 minute drive.

When considering the overall scope of the project it is a fair statement that these issues have been brewing for years and will not go away anytime soon short of passage of the bond election. As Operations Supervisor I oversaw the construction, remodeling, and repurposing in the last few years of at least a dozen classrooms at the High School, Middle School, Roosevelt and Rossman to accommodate the ever expanding student population. Many of the various areas were previously storage areas or computer labs which negatively impacted one area in favor of classroom space. This year the District population has moderate growth again. The District has run out of available space to convert to classrooms unless they start to divide up areas like the libraries, shops or commons.

Other issues involved in the bond election have to do with the exterior restoration of the Middle School’s exterior panel system. The present panels were built with old technology and are delaminating or pillowing on the outside and are in dire need of replacement. The panel replacement also gives the ability to bring additional natural lighting into the educational spaces and upgrade the insulating properties.  Also the Middle School needs interior lighting and boiler upgrades to substantially lower the day-to-day operating costs. These projects are too costly to complete on an annual improvement budget.

One last issue at the Middle School is the upgrades to the George Simpson Auditorium. If you have enjoyed the numerous school musicals, plays, band and choir concerts as well as various community presentations for the last 34 years this should be important to you. Currently the antiquated stage light dimmer and patching systems are at about half capacity and in danger of failure. The old stage rigging systems are manually operated and safety issues are a concern. These need replacement or stage productions will suffer. I would estimate that to build this 722 seat auditorium today, complete with the adjoining prop, green room and music areas would cost as much as eight million dollars. A little known fact is this facility has hosted state and national conventions for organizations such as fire fighters, veterans and many church groups bringing with it a large economic impact. This facility within the Middle School is a gem to our area and worth reinvestment to keep it operational for many additional years. This cannot be accomplished without passage of the bond issue.

During my 45 years in Detroit Lakes I witnessed the purchase of land and the construction of the new Junior High (now the Middle School), the building of Roosevelt Elementary and the additions to and remodeling of the High School. It is my opinion that this bond election will have a larger impact on a greater number of students with a wider range of ages than any bond election or event since the consolidation of rural schools back in the 40’s and 50’s.

In closing, I want to leave you with this thought in mind. It was my privilege through the years to work closely with the School Board and the District Administrators. I always found them to be up front on issues, fair in their dealings and always put the students first with any decisions. Remember our Board members were elected by us and many of them re-elected by us. We entrusted them with the responsibility of caring for our schools on our behalf. They live among us and deserve to be listened to. They are not asking for money to send overseas or to Washington D.C. but to be spent here at home for the benefit of our families. I can’t emphasize enough that these issues will not go away. I encourage you to support the Board in their quest to put our local schools on a broad based solid foundation for a good many years. Now is the time to act. - Ben Weekley, Detroit Lakes Resident