UPDATE: The growing pains of today’s Grand Rapids school vote

Supporters of the Grand Rapids elementary school referendum have been active for weeks, while opponents have become more vocal recently. (PHOTO: Students First ISD 318)

Supporters of the Grand Rapids elementary school referendum have been active for weeks, while opponents have become more vocal recently. (PHOTO: Students First ISD 318)

UPDATE (11 p.m.): The District 318 school referendum failed by more than 2,000 votes. Every precinct voted no. It was a crushing defeat that will send the school district back to the drawing board for its future plans.

Here are the totals.

My analysis is that the project was not fully formed enough to convince voters to back the large tax increase. Some voters balked at the price tag; others at the loss of neighborhood schools. Further, rural parts of the district rejected the idea en masse. There was no outreach to those voters at all.


On one hand, Tuesday’s school referendum in the far western Mesabi Iron Range city of Grand Rapids, Minnesota, is a pretty typical affair. People who support investment in new schools argue the benefits of an $80 million bond referendum while those concerned about the tax increase stand in opposition. Nothing new there. Most any school referendum competes in that dynamic.

But this is more than a refurbishing proposition. ISD 318 seeks to build two new K-5 elementary schools in new locations to replace four existing elementary schools — three in Grand Rapids, one nearby Cohasset, all built in the 1950s or earlier in the case of Cohasset.

The grounds for this proposal are the age of the buildings and the fact that growing enrollment in the early grades of Grand Rapids schools have forced schools to use portable classroom additions. Additionally, special ed and early childhood demands are beginning to overwhelm existing district space.

The district considers two new schools to be a better investment than refurbishing the four old ones. The buildings would be more modern, better fitted for new technology and student activity.

Opponents are spooked by the $80 million tax bill and the length of the bond, not an unprecedented amount, but big by recent historical standards. The new schools would be a step toward technological progress, but would also abandon the neighborhood school model that Grand Rapids has now. All four current elementary schools are located in residential areas where many students walk to school.

Another unusual aspect of the proposal is the fact that the specific locations for the new schools have not be finalized yet, nor has the design been finalized. The district argues that their goal is to have an open process in which the community informs the ultimate design of the buildings.

Proponents include many members of the Grand Rapids educational and civic communities. The “Students First” group has been active for months. The opposition seems to be an uneasy alliance between fiscal conservatives and others concerned that buildings and technology are overshadowing the basic mission of elementary education. Though quiet for a long time, a number of opponents have recently become more vocal.

I predict a close election based on the fact that I’ve heard from supporters and opponents who each believe that their side will lose. I tend to believe the measure will pass, but turnout will be absolutely key to that guess.

I’ll share results when I know them.

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