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Staples-Motley Schools: Referendum fails on both counts

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Voters line the steps of the Staples Community Center Tuesday, May 14, to cast their votes in the Staples-Motley school referendum. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch Video 2 / 3
Geneva Hoemberg signs her name with the election judge Tuesday, May 14, to vote in the Staples-Motley school referendum at the Staples Community Center. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch Video 3 / 3

Maybe the van with "VOTE NO" painted on the windows at Motley City Hall influenced voters. Maybe the price tag was too high, maybe residents just didn't see the need, or maybe it was a combination of different factors leading voters to deny the Staples-Motley School District its proposed $60 million bonding referendum Tuesday, May 14.

Nearly 68% of voters opposed Question 1, asking for money to update elementary, middle and high school facilities.

Even more of the roughly 4,300 voters opposed Question 2, with 70% voting "no" on the $10.45 million activities center.

"I'm very disappointed," Superintendent Ron Bratlie said late Tuesday night. "But we'll deal with them."

Specifically, the $48.2 million requested in Question 1 would have funded upgraded ceilings, casework, flooring and finishes at Staples-Motley Elementary School, along with refurbished and additional restrooms; construction of a secure entrance; an expanded receiving area, kitchen and cafeteria; and new gym, music and laboratory spaces.

The existing gym would have been repurposed for kindergarten and special education use.

At the high school, Question 1 asked for money to remodel and add to the building in order to combine middle and high school students into one building.

Additions would have been constructed to house more classrooms, a new gym, expanded cafeteria and additional fitness and wrestling space.

Other parts of the building, including the locker rooms and auditorium, would have been remodeled, while the heating, ventilation and cooling system, plumbing, sprinklers and electrical system would have been updated.

The activities center in Question 2 was planned to eventually replace the Staples Community Center, which district officials say is coming to the end of its useful life. The new space—complete with a gymnasium, community room, swimming pool and locker rooms—would have connected to the elementary school and been available for community use.

Lakewood Health System had pledged $1.5 million for walking tracks in all three gyms of the elementary school, middle/high school and activities center if the measure had passed.

During the day Tuesday, some voters—like retirees Tim Carlson and Leland Webster—expressed concern over the referendum's high cost.

"I know it costs money to do things, but it costs money to live, too," Webster said, noting he would have had a hard time figuring out how to foot the bill if the measure had passed.

"I don't think it's the right time," Carlson said, saying the referendum may have been necessary but it was not feasible right now.

After voting at Motley City Hall, Larry Converse Sr. said he hoped voters would defeat the measure, forcing school district officials to restructure the plan and come back with something different in the future.

Motley resident and former school board member Ken Swecker said he thought the measure would pass, though he hoped it wouldn't, noting money would be better spent on the current facilities rather than building new ones.

Rita Stone and Maryann Riewer, however, had hoped for a different outcome.

"We hope for our kids' sake that it passes," Riewer said after she voted at the Staples Community Center Tuesday afternoon.

And for Stone, it was all about educational opportunities.

"My kids had a good education, I had a good education. It's just run down; it's just time for a new one, that's all," Stone said of the school facilities.

What's next?

Though the activities center is no longer in the cards right now, the district still plans to move the Motley middle school students over to the high school facility in Staples, while the Motley school will remain open for early childhood facilities.

Bratlie said the school board will discuss how to move forward at its meeting Monday night.

In a Facebook post May 9, the Staples-Motley School District said it will have to find different ways to address the facility issues in the event of a failed referendum.

"The school board has concluded that our needs are too great to ignore," the post stated. "For the next year or two, we will continue to spend money out of our operating budget each year for repairs and maintenance. In the long term, any solution will have a tax impact, and a partial solution will require additional spending soon."

Theresa Bourke

I started at the Dispatch in July 2018, covering Brainerd city government and the Brainerd School District. I follow city and school board officials as they make important decisions for residents and students and decide how to spend taxpayer dollars. I look for feature story ideas among those I meet and enjoy, more than anything, helping individuals tell their stories and show what makes them unique.

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