For the second time this year, voters in the Owatonna school district will go to the polls to decide whether or not to build a new high school in the community. There are those who oppose Tuesday’s referendum vote who will say that it is too soon to have another vote. After all, they say, it was just this past May that voters said no to the proposed change. Surely little, if anything, has changed in the intervening six months.
We beg to differ.
Yes, it is true that voters in the district voted down May’s bond referendum, though the results were close, very close, with less than 1 percentage point separating the yes votes from the no.
But the changes that have been made since May’s proposal to November’s have been significant. For one thing, the size and scope of the project has been lessened — from a school that could house 1,700 students to a structure that would house 1,600. And along with that reduction in the size of the structure comes a reduction in the cost of the project. Because of the generous pledges of community businesses toward the project, the amount of the bond that the district is asking voters to approve is no longer $116 million (the amount of the May bond) but $104 million.
That’s a pretty big change — a $12 million change. And it’s a change that reflects the willingness of the district and its leadership to listen to the concerns expressed by the community.
The size and cost of the proposed project weren’t the only concerns the community expressed and certainly not the only concerns that the district addressed. There were concerns, for example, about what would happen to the current high school — a concern the district addressed by formulating a second question that would allow voters to approve a plan for what to do with the current school. There were concerns about not knowing where the new high school would be located — a concern that the district addressed not only by revealing where the new school would be built, but also by sharing information from City of Owatonna and Steele County officials about how ideal the new location would be.
Voters had concerns — legitimate concerns. And those concerns have been addressed.
We also think there are other concerns that voters need to acknowledge — concerns about security in the school, which, as much as we would hope wouldn’t be a concern, but which is and must; concerns about having a structure that suits the needs and demands of a 21st century education — needs and demands which are different, very different, from when many of us were students; and concerns about the impact that the current school has on the life of our community.
To that last concern we would harken back to conversations we had with some leaders of business and industry in our community who noted the difficulty they were having attracting new employees to their businesses — Federated Insurance, Viracon, Wenger and Mayo Clinic Health Systems. Potential employees, they said, have looked and will continue to look at the education system of the community — and, yes, that includes the facilities — to determine whether this is the sort of school they want their children to attend and therefore the type of community in which they want to rear their children.
To that end, these businesses have done the remarkable in pledging more that $22 million to the high school project — a virtually unheard of gesture to help the community even as they are helping their businesses. To these leaders, the pledges are investments in the future — not only their future, but the future of the children of the community.
It is a great investment. And for that reason, we support the school bond referendum and encourage voters to say yes to building a new high school.
Reach Managing Editor Jeffrey Jackson at 444-2371 or follow him on Twitter @OPPJeffrey.