Bates: School is fully utilized currently, and enrollment trends indicate more of the same.

Years ago, the newer section of Crookston Central High School downtown was spared from the wrecking ball so it could be renovated into Central Junior High School for seventh and eighth-graders. Despite all the time and money that was invested in order to make that vision a reality, declining enrollment and financial constraints forced the closure of CJHS only a few short years later.

These days, as the Crookston School Board and Superintendent Chris Bates prepare to ask school district voters in November to approve just under $5.7 million in needed maintenance, repair and improvement projects at Crookston High School, Highland School and Washington School, just under $836,000 of the total is found at Washington, home to early childhood education, kindergarten and first grade programming.

The Washington-specific price tag had school board members, at a working session Monday, questioning whether it was wise to invest in things like a roof with a 30-year warranty for a building around six decades old, especially a building that is most often mentioned first when talk surfaces from time to time about potentially reducing the number of operational school buildings in Crookston to two, CHS and Highland.

If Monday's discussion is any indication, however, Washington School's days are far from numbered. The building itself is still in relatively good shape considering how old it is, Bates said. But, more importantly, he continued, current enrollment trends indicate that the district is nowhere close to being able to squeeze all of its students into two buildings.

"We had a couple classes that dipped into the 80s a few years ago, but now it seems like 100 to 110 is the pattern," the superintendent said. "That trend would keep us at around 1,300 kids, almost where we're at now. What that means is we have every room at Washington School full of kids."

In order to realistically look at Washington School as a legitimate candidate for closure, Bates said enrollment in the public schools would have to dip by around one-third. "That's pretty dramatic," he said. "If something like that happened in Crookston in the next 10 to 12 years, after the current kindergartners go through the system, it would be safe to assume that the smaller schools around us would also being losing a third of their kids.

"It would be a big scramble for the entire area, requiring a different educational model, with 'area' high schools and a complete redesign of the way we deliver education in northwestern Minnesota," Bates continued.

That's pretty big-picture, long-term stuff, however. Focusing on the here and now and short-term future at Washington School, in response to board member Dave Davidson's question about the "functionality" of the oldest operating school building in Crookston, Bates enthusiastically endorsed the facility.

"It's a great learning environment for those grade levels," he said. "Politically, it would be foolish for us to go down that road again without our eyes wide open. I really see Washington being used 25, 30 years from now. I think (the new roof and new windows that are part of the $836,000 in projects) sets us up for the long term."

By the numbers
The totality of the projects the board is eyeing at the three schools and swimming pool adds up to around $16 million, but around $10 million of that the board is able to pursue, with what is looking like a low-interest, 20-year financing plan, via current legislation that doesn't require approval at the ballot box by school district residents. The almost-$5.7 million in projects discussed Monday is not covered by any current legislation and requires voter approval in November.

The board and administration together are crafting their communication plan as they lay out for district residents between now and Election Day in November how everything adds up, including the tax impact of the full package of projects at the four facilities. As things stand now, with one operating levy coming off the books next year and the bonds that built CHS to be paid off the year after, it appears the 20-year financing package being pondered would have a very minimal tax impact. Some district residents' taxes might actually go down, or remain about the same as they are now.

Monday, board chair Frank Fee said he wants the district's financial advisors, Springsted, Inc., to come to Crookston in person at some point to explain the tax impact in detail to board members and district residents. "I think we need to get them here to confirm these numbers so it's not just us saying this," Fee said.

So, even though legislation gives the board the option to finance around $10 million in projects without voter approval, what happens if the majority of voters in November reject the request for almost $5.7 million to cover the rest of the projects, which also include a new roof and heat pumps at CHS and windows at Highland?

"Well, then I'd say we'd have to go back and have another election," Bates said. "We can't function without a roof. We can't just say 'too bad' and sit here for 10 more years with leaky roofs."