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Donald Grunewald, Published May 13 2013

Letter: Smarter to paint the house

The voters in the Rothsay, Minn., School District need to decide for themselves if the cost of a new school is worth the expense before casting their ballot Thursday. Those pushing for a new school have suggested a long list of benefits that will result from construction of a new school. The only one they seem to have missed is that it would make a dandy snow fence for the people living on the north side of town.

I would take these claims more seriously if there were more to back them up. One argument is that it would help to keep class sizes small. Using data provided from the Minnesota Department of Education, School Digger rated Rothsay’s elementary as 244th out of 793 listed with a student-to-teacher ratio of 11.6 to 1 in 2011-12. The top school listed was Atheneum Elementary in Inver Grove Heights with a student-to-teacher ratio of 29.7 to 1. The schools that were ranked third, fourth, seventh, 10th and 12th all had ratios of 19.4 to 1 or larger. It would seem that quality teachers are still important, and the increased bills that will result from a new school might leave less money to hire them.

Families with young children will be moving to Rothsay to attend a new school. In most cases finances win out over sentiment. A 15-minute drive in most directions will get you outside of the school district borders where you can enjoy all the benefits without the high taxes and still have an easy drive to school events. The limited amount of stores, long commute to good jobs in Fargo-Moorhead, high fuel prices, total lack of any medical care facility, and school taxes that are already the highest in the area all work against that statement. Students from as far away as Norway attend Hillcrest Academy, and their main building was built in 1901.

They also claim that the school will grow the community. How much growth can Rothsay with its large number of elderly residents afford? They will be paying higher sewer bills for the next 39 years to replace old sewer lines, and their sewage treatment plant is at near capacity now. New residents also require roads and the extension of utilities. There also isn’t any guarantee that the school might have to seek another operating levy in the future if things don’t go as planned. Open enrollment now makes up 38 percent of the school’s student body, and if trends continue, the local students may become a minority in their own school.

There seems to be an attitude of “Let the rich farmers pay for it!” Some of the less fortunate may decide it is time to quit farming with the result that there will be fewer farms and fewer local students attending school. Keep in mind the old saying, “Don’t bite the hand that feeds you!”

Another argument is that it will bring new business to town. A business needs a large potential market, favorable taxes and a skilled work force if it is going to have a chance at succeeding. Taxes are bad enough already, and there are fewer people around than there were when most of the stores in Rothsay went out of business.

They also claim that our present school is in such rough shape that it isn’t cost effective to fix it. There are serious questions about the amount of money the administration claims is needed to do the needed repairs. Is the best solution to the claim that they can’t afford to tuck-point the walls, etc., constructing an all-new larger school that may be more expensive to operate and require more open-enrolled students that cost more to educate than the state provides?

My grandmother, Anna Lillevold, who lived north of town during the Great Depression, often said, “There isn’t any use in painting the house if you are going to lose the farm.” She was an intelligent and practical woman who wouldn’t have believed that the solution to her faded paint job was to tear down a perfectly good house and replace it with a larger one she wouldn’t be able to afford. Nor would she have tried to solve her money problems by taking in tenants whose room and board would cost her more than the rent received.

Spending some money to get our house painted and limiting open enrollment to what we can handle seems to make more sense than going deeply into debt for the next 30 years to build a new one that we might have trouble making payments on.

Grunewald lives in the Rothsay School District.