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Brainerd City Council: Residents voice support of school district's parking plan

Brainerd City Council member Dave Pritschet talks to community members before the Monday, Nov. 19, city council meeting. Theresa Bourke / Brainerd Dispatch

Student safety is once again the talk of the town in Brainerd.

"In the last year, we've lost kids to cancer, we've lost kids to suicide, we've lost kids," Brainerd resident Carole Paschelke told the city council Monday, Nov. 19. "And I would like to think that the legacy of this community would not be that we would have to lose a child to consider the safety of the drop-off and pick-up of children at our schools."

And a proposed moratorium sitting at the center of discussion for the last month was once again not taken to a vote.

The Brainerd City Council tabled its vote on a moratorium that would prohibit the demolition of structurally sound buildings for the creation of off-street parking in certain residential and commercial zones. The planning commission voted at its Oct. 17 meeting to recommend the moratorium to council members.

Council member Dave Badeaux suggested tabling the item during the council's Monday meeting. His motion came after representatives from both the city and the school district met last week to discuss the idea of more parking areas district officials say they need around Brainerd High School and Garfield, Lowell and Harrison elementary schools. The district brought forth plans in September to acquire 27 properties around the schools so off-street parking can be added. When the proposed moratorium came up, school board member Bob Nystrom recommended a joint meeting with the city to discuss the matter.

"We had a great meeting with the school board ... last week. I think the discussion was very, very well-received on both ends. I think that we can reach some kind of conclusion that works in everybody's favor," Badeaux said Monday. "I think right now it would be best for us to continue our dialogue with the school district, continue working toward something and show a good sign of faith that we can reach something without making some kind of overarching decision."

Council members Jan Lambert and Kelly Bevans, who attended the joint meeting with Badeaux on behalf of the council, agreed with his sentiments.

Public input

When the council meeting's public forum came up Monday, those in attendance for the moratorium issue voiced their opinions—all of which backed the school district's plan, many citing student safety as a concern.

Paschelke told council members the same story she brought before the school board three weeks ago—her initial upset at hearing the district wanted to acquire and demolish her house next to Harrison, then her realization student safety might be at stake. She expressed her full support of the district's plan Monday and cautioned the council not to hinder activity.

"The longer these delays happen, the more the projects cost and the less of the funding that's going to what it was intended for—the education and the safety of the students," Paschelke said.

Residents Jenny Hankel and Jason Bade, who have property on the acquisition list near Harrison and Lowell schools, respectively, offered similar statements.

Hankel said student safety should never be in question and safety for everybody is important.

Bade noted the high speeds at which he sees cars pass Lowell, not seeming to take notice of student presence. He also mentioned his daughter's struggles with walking from BHS to work in the afternoons because of unsafe crosswalks.

"If I have to give up my house to save a child," Bade said, "I'm all for it."

Harrison Elementary principal Cathy Nault emphasized the need for more parking are not just so staff members can park close to school—it's for everyone who visits the schools and is truly about safety.

Kim Ellingson, a Brainerd resident who served on the advocacy committee to help pass the April referendum, took a different approach, noting the economic value of the school district's plans. As the president of Bremer Bank, Ellingson said she understands how big of a factor the school district plays in creating jobs and attracting people to the Brainerd area.

"We're ready to start attracting additional people to the community through the school district, and so waiting even just three months for the moratorium could be problematic for us," she said. "We're ready to go, and I think that the voters have shown that as well."

Ellingson also noted how much public input the district took into account when developing it's referendum plan, as did Superintendent Laine Larson, who said she thinks the district has the right plan, according to feedback from hundreds of public meetings before the referendum.

"I'm so excited that the council is willing to sit down and have further discussion," Larson said, noting how hearing city council concerns at last week's joint meeting was helpful to understanding both sides of the issue. "I believe that coming together as a unified team of people that cares about the children in our district, that cares about our community as a whole, that we can come to a consensus."

What's next?

After the council and school district's joint meeting last week, council members agreed to look at the impact property acquisitions would have on the city's market value, while the district re-examines plans for parking at the elementary schools after learning a recent ordinance change no longer mandates schools to have a minimum number of off-street parking spaces.