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Brainerd schools may see new Baxter elementary, but not Harrison

The Brainerd School Board .... Harrison Elementary School. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

There may be a new Baxter Elementary School in the near future in the Brainerd School District—but there most likely won't be a new Harrison Elementary School.

The Brainerd School Board Monday took a step closer toward a finalized plan for its six elementary schools—Baxter, Garfield, Harrison, Lowell, Nisswa and Riverside. The board voted 5-1 to build a new Baxter school and to repurpose all the remaining elementary schools. Board member Chris Robinson voted against the motion, as he supported the other option the administration team discussed that would have meant building two new schools at Baxter and Harrison and then repurposing the remaining four.

However, nothing is set in stone. Once the six-member school board approves a final plan, it will be up to the voters to decide whether or not the plan will become a reality. A special board meeting is scheduled at 5 p.m. Nov. 27 to determine the bond referendum election date and to discuss the facilities plan and the financial allocations involved.

The school district spent countless hours over several months developing a facilities plan to meet the needs of students, staff and the community for future generations to come. The district hosted public listening sessions at all its schools earlier this year and met with all the staff.

Superintendent Laine Larson said the administration team came up with 11 different options on what to do with the six elementary schools and its Early Childhood Family Education program. Larson said after looking at all the information, it became clear two of the options would be good. The option the school board approved includes a new Baxter Elementary School and repurposing all the other elementary schools.

Larson said the administration team found this option maintains neighborhood schools, which is what the community expressed it desired during the listening sessions and surveys. She said it also maintains the current "community feel" and "school climate" of the elementary schools and maintains and invests in all of its elementary schools.

Larsen said there also would be less impact on potential boundary realignments, which would mean less impact on families.

With this option, Harrison would have a capacity to serve 375 students; Nisswa, 375 students, plus early childhood students; Lowell, 475; Garfield, 375; Riverside, 625; and Baxter, 500.

The existing Baxter school would serve as "Baxter Early Childhood Hub," with the building serving as the main location for early childhood offices and classrooms. Brainerd public schools would continue to offer its satellite classrooms in Nisswa and at the Washington Educational Services Building in Brainerd.

The option the board did not choose would have meant two new schools serving 500 students at Harrison and Baxter and would have had early childhood programs at Harrison, Nisswa and Baxter's existing school. Laine said this option would have provided a more balanced average student capacity among all the elementary buildings; would have provided a greater longevity of buildings at minimal additional costs; decreased deferred maintenance expenses; situated schools closer to the center of the attendance zones and where growth could occur; and would have provided the flexibility to respond to future growth if additions would be necessary in the future.

Board Chair Bob Nystrom supported the option with building just one new elementary school, as he supports maintaining neighborhood schools.

"There is no perfect solution," board member Ruth Nelson said on what the district should do with its elementary schools. "I am concerned about Lowell and the existing Harrison school, but I will support this. ... We will see how it (plays out.)"

Robinson said he voted against the option because he is concerned it will not meet the district's goal to promote robust opportunities in academics, arts, activities and athletics and will not foster best practice instruction and 21st Century learning opportunities. He said he believes the option to build two new schools would better serve the district's goals.

Larson said having the school board vote in favor of the option that includes building one school doesn't mean the decision is final. She said the final outcome will be decided by the voters. She said the motion to approve the option Monday gives the administration team direction to research it in more detail and to clarify the funding options. Larson said the option the board approved is about $3 million less than the option to build two new schools.

"I see a lot of positives in both of these options," Larson said, as she looked at everything from the district's six phases and the facility goal it established and the feedback from staff and the community. "This has weighed (on the recommendation) strongly. People are really proud of the school and trust us that we are listening to the community and have their best interest."

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