By: John Nelson
Grand Rapids Voice
We all want the best possible education that we can afford for the children of ISD 318. After all, these are our children, our grandchildren, our nieces and nephews. We want their education to be the best possible because their education is the basis for their success in life and in their chosen careers. In our ever-changing world, education is the pillar on which our community and society stands. Nobody can dispute this.
The community is being asked by the ISD 318 School Board to approve an investment of $80 million to build two new grade schools to replace the four currently in use. They tell us that increasing student population and the best possible education for the children requires this investment in our children’s future. The school board does not say that a substantial contribution to the increase in student enrollment is due to the manner in which students are counted. Kindergarten children, when they attended half-day kindergarten, were counted as ½ student. However, now that kindergarten students attend all-day kindergarten, they are counted as 1 student. By making this simple change in the way students are counted, the enrollment in the primary grades increased over 10% without adding a new student to the enrollment. This hardly qualifies as a real increase in enrollment and makes the argument based on increased student population a myth.
In their publications, the school board also stated that the new schools would have space for “community involvement”. What exactly is “community involvement”? Are we to understand that they are including space for purposes other than educating our children? We agree school facilities are very important. But, we do not build schools as auditoriums and venues for “community involvement”.
When any of us find the need to make a significant investment, i.e. a new car, a new home, etc., we all have what we would want on one hand and what we can afford on the other. We may want all the bells and whistles of a luxury SUV but a mini-van will be sufficient to do what we need it to do without those wonderful extra things on our wish-list. The real question that confronts us is, “Can we afford the schools the school board proposes or is there a plan that more closely fits our ability to pay?”
There are many things to consider in determining what we can afford. The school board says that the increase in property tax will only be $8 per month to pay for the entire investment. This may be close for lower valued properties in the county but it is not for the average property. The average property owner will pay substantially more. While this may sound good and attractive, nowhere in their published material does the school board give the total cost over the term of the debt. We all know that when we buy a car or a home and make payments, the total amount we pay is far, far greater than the purchase price. The amount they are asking is $80 million but the total cost is significantly more and will saddle the properties in Itasca County with debt for 20-22 years. The community will be paying the debt and deserves to know the real cost of the indebtedness and not just a statement on what the cost would be to the lower valued properties.
We are already facing an 8% increase in county levy for wage increases of county employees as reported by Kitty Mayo in the Scenic Range News Forum on Thursday, September 17, 2015, Blandin has successfully litigated a case in Tax Court and the county must potentially repay Blandin $10 million due to over taxation, the tax values on Blandin’s forest land has been reduced from $190 million to $26 million, the City of Grand Rapids has bonded new projects that require an additional $4.275 million which will require increased tax levies to repay that debt together with interest; Enbridge Pipeline is closing its Number 3 pipeline through Itasca County and revenues from this closing are being lost. We live in a community where: property values are already decreasing; median per capita income is falling; unemployment is among the highest in the state; population, as a whole is decreasing, the City of Grand Rapids is already the sixth highest taxed per capita city in the state. In short, our capacity to pay for large debt is rapidly decreasing. Is there now or are we approaching insufficient population, income and employment to justify the financial burden of providing the board what they want and not what we, as a community, can afford?
Look to St. Joseph’s, for example. St. Joseph’s was able to construct a new school accommodating 175 students and a gymnasium for a total of $3.7 million. The ISD School Board states the proposed schools are to accommodate 900 students or just over 5 times the enrollment at St. Joseph’s. Based on a per child cost, St. Joseph’s could build a facility for 900 students for less than $20 million. Why, then, does the school board want us to believe that they need $80 million. Surely, there is a plan which is affordable and gives the community the best facilities and education the community can afford.
Grand Rapids Voice is actively working with the ISD 318 School Board, elected officials and the community to provide quality education for our children and facilities that we can afford.