Critical school votes test Northern MN political climate

Today, voters in two Northern Minnesota school districts will render their verdict on separate school bond referendum measures. The result will speak greatly toward public attitudes about the economy, taxation and public education in rural Minnesota.

Grand Rapids

In Grand Rapids, voters will consider two questions that would cost taxpayers up to $74 million. The first would construct two new elementary schools. One would be near the current Grand Itasca hospital and the other would be near the Robert J. Elkington Middle School. Cohasset Elementary would be remodeled under this same plan, which would total about $69 million for all three buildings. The current schools at Forest Lake, Murphy and Southwest would be closed, the latter two repurposed for other district functions. The district argues this will help the district save money that now goes toward renting space for special education and early childhood services.

In addition, ISD 318 voters will see a second $5 million question about building new sports facilities in Grand Rapids and Bigfork.

This vote comes about two and a half years after a slightly more expensive bond referendum failed in 2015. In fact, despite the lack of much organized resistance, it was trounced. This time the school district has done a much better job explaining its plan. For instance, we now see what the schools would look like and where they would be located. We better understand why the district feels it can’t remodel the existing buildings. And while much of this seems tied to some overly burdensome adherence to state guidelines rather than creative thinking, it does make sense, anyway. We see the advantages, both educationally and financially.

However, the opposition has also been more organized and better funded than before. Interestingly, the opposition seems centered on the cost of the plan given the economic challenges facing two large local employers: the UPM Blandin paper mill in Grand Rapids and Minnesota Power’s Clay Boswell power plant in Cohasset. If those plants close, opponents argue, the town could not afford the tax burden.


Meantime, in Brainerd, voters will face three questions that would cost up to $145 million. The first would improve elementary and early childhood facilities with a cost of $104 million from multiple sources, $68 million from taxpayers. A second question would cost taxpayers $69 million and pertains to secondary school and alternative education facilities. The third question, contingent on the second question passing, would construct an $8 million performing arts center at Brainerd High School.

Much more expensive and far-reaching than the Grand Rapids referendum, the Brainerd plan involves many moving parts. It would dramatically reshape the district.

What they share

Brainerd and Grand Rapids are both “lakes and woods” districts in North Central Minnesota. Grand Rapids holds loose ties to the Iron Range, but is more economically similar to Brainerd than its closer rival Hibbing. Both districts serve young families in regions that are dominated by an older population. Both districts are relatively high performing, but lack the access to property tax revenue available to suburban districts.

If these measures pass, they would reflect a population open to spending on broadening the scope of public education. If they fail, communities will have yet to balance future needs with the will of its population.

What’s different

My family is part of the Grand Rapids district, so I’m more familiar with that debate. My wife Christina took part in a district sponsored community feedback forum over several months last year. The school board asked for and I provided analysis about why the 2015 bond measure failed.

We both voted against that referendum because we felt the plan lacked specifics and that community elementary schools were too good in their current form to tinker with them. After considerable thought, I’ve decided that this time I will vote “Yes.” I feel the new proposal is clearer and I better understand the long term plan. I also don’t like to barter on the failure of my community. The opposition campaign was frankly depressing for its disregard of the value of public education and in its presumption of doom and gloom. If our economy ever sours, schools will be more important, not less. The tax burden of this measure, compared to other districts, seems small enough to manage over time.

That said, I am no more certain of this one passing than I was the last one, and the last one lost badly. As I said, the plans are clearer this time and the Vote Yes campaign was better. The election is being held in the dead of April rather than during a normal fall election date. Turnout could be lower, especially among seasonal residents.

Lingering questions

One thing that still troubles me, and will regardless of the outcome, is the way that local districts seem locked into the kind of thinking sold by consulting firms. I think the improvements in this current proposal come from reaction to public feedback. It took too long to bring educational outcomes into the discussion. The fixation on “bigger is better” building-focused ideas was a problem for me. I would like to see more creative thinking from school boards and communities to revitalize the interior, rather than the fringes of our towns. I was convinced to vote yes for several reasons, but I share some of the reservations that caused me to vote no the first time.

If you’d like a contrasting view, consider my friend Chuck Marohn’s analysis of the bond measure in his hometown of Brainerd. He runs into many of the same problems I did. He’s not supporting the bond measure there for some of the same reasons I still have reservations about the one in Grand Rapids. Though I am supporting the Grand Rapids measure, which is smaller than Brainerd’s, I see logic in what Chuck talks about.

We’ll find out what people think tonight. If you live in these districts, be sure to vote. If you don’t, this could still affect you. These bellwether communities will play outsized roles in the outcome of next November’s election. Attitudes about the economy, taxation and education will be a big deal.


  1. Some level of extraordinary investment might be needed from time to time but…public schools not only have a monopoly, they’re government run. That’s 0 for 2 if looking for effectiveness and efficiency.

    It’s time to look at changing the K-12 education model and introduce serious competition. Break the failed cycle of more money for public schools (only) means a more educated student. It’s not working.

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