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Brainerd Public Schools: Board hears more pros, cons of property acquisition

The Brainerd School Board met in a special meeting Monday, Dec. 19, to discuss property acquisition and other matters. Theresa Bourke / Brainerd Dispatch

Arguments for and against more parking at Brainerd schools continue.

The Brainerd School Board heard concerns during a public hearing Wednesday, Dec. 19, on four properties mislabeled on the original property acquisition list in September: 1203 NE 11th Ave., 1207 NE 11th Ave., 620 NE Third Ave., and a vacant lot adjacent to 1601 Oak St.

Michelle Overland lives at 620 NE Third Ave., near Lowell Elementary School, and told board members she was not happy with the district's communication methods nor the acquisition proposal in general.

"I'm disappointed with the communication on this project," Overland said, noting she was contacted about the acquisition twice in September and October and was told someone would be in touch again to help her understand the acquisition process, though as of Wednesday, that had not happened. "I found out about this meeting last night that you were discussing my property because nobody's gotten a hold of me. I've looked periodically on the site and there has not been any talk about my property."

Overland mentioned the lack of affordable housing in Brainerd and her concerns about being able to find another place to live and having to qualify for another mortgage.

"I don't understand how this is anything to do with education," she said of the project proposal to put a 39-stall parking lot west of Lowell Elementary on G Street between Northeast Third and Fourth avenues. "I don't see that as being anything that's going to make the neighborhood better, provide education for our kids, do any of that. And I'm not opposed to community improvement. And I'm not opposed to education. I've raised three children myself, but I'm just concerned with it, and I'm upset."

Overland opined the parking lot would destroy the neighborhood aesthetic and the home values of those who will live next to it.

She added the size of the parking lot—planned to have 37 spots and two handicapped-accessible spots—will not even be big enough for all the Lowell staff.

On the other side of the issue, Robert Boyd, whose Northeast 11th Street property near Garfield Elementary was one of the four included in Wednesday's public hearing, said he has no problem selling his house to the district and actually tried to do so three years ago.

Boyd told board members of the problems he's had for years with cars blocking his driveway when parents line up and pick up their kids. He provided the board with pictures to prove his point. And when the school has special events, Boyd said people will park in his driveway.

"Why do I have to put up with that?" he asked the board, also mentioning verbal abuse he undergoes from parents who want him to move from his own property. "I'm a taxpayer; I own that home. I have a right to be unimpeded to get into my driveway every day, any time I want to get in my driveway," he said.

Because of all the traffic, a parking lot for the school is a necessity in Boyd's mind.

"I don't know how you can have a school in any school zones without parking for staff," he said.

Boyd said he would like to know sooner rather than later what the fate of his house will be, as he would like to do some remodeling but won't bother if the district is going to acquire it and tear it down.

Board members thanked both speakers and said action would be taken on the acquisition of these properties after a 30-day comment period. Anyone else with concerns has a month to notify the district.

School board member Tom Haglin then addressed the audience, noting the district's original plan had more parking spots in it but was revised as a compromise with the city.

"There was opposition to what we originally proposed, so we kind of had to go back to the drawing board and shrink the number of parking stalls. So we unfortunately know that we don't have enough parking stalls even for staff," Haglin said.

He then responded to Overland's concerns about lack of communication.

"This is not the first time that I've heard about the poor communication, so it breaks my heart to think that you had no idea about the meeting today," Haglin said. "We have very limited homeowners that we're working with that it's a real concern of mine that we're not making personal phone calls and visits."

Haglin said he would like the district's oversight committee to discuss communication.

Superintendent Laine Larson apologized for the mislabeling of properties on the acquisition list in the first place.

Later during the regular school board meeting—after Overland left—Community Education Director Cori Reynolds said she and Natalie Hoff, of ICS Consulting, already set up a phone conversation with Overland to further discuss the acquisition process and the services the district will offer. Larson asked if they could meet in person instead, but because Overland usually works nights, Reynolds said an in-person meeting was hard to arrange.

Also Wednesday, the school board agreed to move forward with the property acquisition process for two properties near Lowell Elementary School: 623 NE Fourth Ave. and 619 NE Fourth Ave.

City council and property acquisition

The Brainerd City Council discussed the district's acquisition proposal at its meeting Monday, Dec. 17.

The council previously held off on approving the acquisition plan and the elementary school design proposals, as members were concerned about the possibility of turning Southeast 15th Street near Harrison Elementary into a one-way to be used for parent pick-up and drop-off. Council members previously said they heard from residents concerned about losing their on-street parking to the project.

The district came back Monday with a revised plan, in which 15th Street would remain a two-way while officials would look at other traffic calming measures to increase safety.

"The one-way is obviously going to offer the most safety when parents come to drop off their children," Tim Ramerth, of Widseth Smith Nolting, told the council Monday. "But I think, in light of the situation of not acquiring the properties on the west of 15th Street, the thought process was to maintain the two-way traffic so the residents on the west of 15th would maintain parking."

Parking would not, however, be allowed on the east side of the street, which would be strictly designated as the parent pick-up and drop-off area.

The special education bus drop-off area was also proposed for that street, but the revised proposal now places it on the north side of the building.

After Ramerth's presentation, council member Dave Badeaux thanked the district for its work and immediately moved to approve the acquisition plan and have city staff continue working with district officials on further project details.

Council member Gabe Johnson, however, was not as quick to give approval.

Though commending district officials for working well the city, Johnson initially said he would vote no on approving the plan.

"I honestly don't believe this is increasing safety. There are 472 houses within .3 miles of the school. That's 472 potential homes with children who are forced to walk to school. You've made it safe for the buses. You've made it safe for the staff. You've made it safe for the parents who are picking kids up," but, Johnson continued, the layout might not be the safest for kids who walk to school.

"I'm not saying you have an easy job and you should be able to do it—you can't," Johnson added. "But I'm just not going to say that I support something that is decreasing the safety for the kids who do have to walk home."

Badeaux reiterated his disdain for parking lots but said the city will eventually have to let the school district move forward.

"At some point we have to show support for a gigantic project that is putting money directly into our city," Badeaux said. "Although I don't support parking lots at all—I think parking lots are a gigantic waste of money—I do support the amount of effort and the amount of time that has been spent on making sure that we're making the best plan that we can."

Council member Dave Pritschet acknowledged Johnson's concerns about safety for pedestrians but said that isn't the school district's job—it's the city's.

"That's more within the scope of Brainerd City Council to make sure that we have sidewalks, that we have crossings, that we have trails," Pritschet said. "So we can't lay that on the shoulders of ISD (Independent School District) 181."

After the council voted unanimously to approve the district's plan, applause erupted from both the council and district officials in the audience at Johnson's support.

Toward the end of the meeting, during council members' reports, Johnson spoke about ongoing efforts to put more sidewalks in the neighborhood around Harrison to help improve pedestrian safety.

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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