We have a fantastic school district here in Brainerd, Minnesota. And I'm not just saying that; we've been repeatedly recognized as great in the multiple ways that educators recognize themselves. And I believe it. In a state where we believe most of us to be above average, a great education system is a source of pride.
I'll even take it a step further. I've worked with numerous other districts -- their elected officials as well as their senior staff -- and I've never met any as competent as ours. I generally admire our school board and think they have chosen good leadership. Unlike other races, each school board election I find myself happy to choose between a number of good candidates. We're doing really well.
I say all this because, even in a school district where so many things are right, we still seem tone deaf -- in the same way nearly everyone else is -- when it comes to the impact our approach has on our cities, towns and neighborhoods. Despite being a part of the government and, in theory, responsive to taxpayers, our investments over and over again devalue our neighborhoods and weaken our communities. We're not alone in that.
In a move I've seen repeated nearly everywhere I've visited in this country, my school district has abandoned many of its neighborhood schools in favor of new construction on the far outskirts of town.
I went to Lincoln Elementary for two years, one of those multi-purpose community facilities built during the Great Depression. There have been no students there for quite some time. It seems likely to be torn down completely in the next round of capital spending, probably for an expansion of the high school parking lot. Washington and Franklin are neighborhood schools that have been likewise abandoned. We were told these buildings were not usable, yet that assertion doesn't pass the eye test as they are still in use, one as an administration building and another as a live/work facility for artists.
Our imagination is sometimes so poor that we actually voted to tear down another neighborhood school -- rip it to the ground -- we found it so useless, the site better off vacant than having this historic structure, one of the few remaining in a city that has torn down so many. Thankfully a charter school stepped up and, with some shaming of the school district by the public greasing the skids, was able to acquire the property.
I've watched the district invest in upgrades to Lowell elementary -- where my kids go -- which, incidentally, has a program that tends to attract some of the more affluent and well-connected families in the area. I've seen another neighborhood school -- Harrison elementary -- where the population tends poorer, not get those ongoing investments. While the district has not released their report on future capital spending, there is more than a rumor that Harrison is to be torn down and a new school built on the outskirts. Fait accompli -- the school that was neglected now needs the most upgrading; cheaper to just tear it down.
Relocating schools far away from where our families live runs counter to a Safe Routes to School study the district paid good money for. As I said at the time: let's just start building our schools on safe routes. Sadly, that seems outside of our study parameters, if not our imaginations.
And it should be noted: I've voiced these concerns many times. I generally get the well-worn response: Where were you at the committee meetings? I didn't see you there when we discussed this. Unless you read all the minutes and sit through all the presentations, you can't possibly know what we know. This tribal shaming technique is extra puzzling given that my concerns over how we repeatedly walk away from our core neighborhoods seem fairly basic. They are also pretty widespread throughout the community. Do I really need to be omnipresent for these otherwise thoughtful people to consider the impact abandonment has on the district's most disadvantaged neighborhoods? Wow, I hope not.
It's also not a big reach to consider the impact that remote campuses have on the health and welfare of the students. My youngest can bike home from school in ten minutes. If I drive her, it takes three. If she takes the bus, it takes 45 minutes. Why? Because she has to ride miles out of town to the remote campus -- driving mere blocks past our house on the way -- and then ride all the way back into town before she gets dropped off. Only in a government world where transportation is funded through a different bureaucratic silo does this make any sense. No amount of improved school lunches can make up for these hours of lost, sedentary time. (And as a side note: I remember the wailing from district officials during our country's brief flirtation with $4 gasoline back in 2008. Thank goodness the United States is now energy independent and we don't have to worry at all about volatile transportation costs of the next three to five decades.)
It's also rather bizarre to me that, despite our ability to design pleasant learning environments when we go big and isolated, we are unable to apply the same type of ethic when tasked with small details. Here's a photo of the south entrance to the high school. It used to have some grass -- nothing special or fancy, but something -- but then we ripped it all out and installed something much easier to maintain (ease of maintenance apparently being highly correlated with positive SAT exam scores, although sadly it is inversely correlated with pride in one's community).
When I walked this route my sophomore and junior year, I remember thinking that nobody gave a damn. I would guess that today's students may think we actually despise them. Is it too much to think that a couple shade trees, a flower bed, some benches and maybe some light fixtures from this century might signal a more positive expectation of ourselves?
Maybe if we were classy and respectful with the little things, people like me wouldn't have so much anxiety that, when it comes to the big things, we are simply going to walk away from our neighborhoods, at least those where we don't just turn them into a vast sea of parking.
Very soon, a bond my district took out a long time ago will be paid off. That debt was assumed through a referendum process. When it is retired, everyone who pays property tax will see a significant decrease in their annual bill. With this modest windfall pending, district officials seem to be gearing up for the next referendum, the here's-all-you-can-get-for-the-same-payment campaign. Do it now before everyone grows used to paying less. I'm really uneasy with that premise, as well as the way the entire thing seems to be going. I'm not alone in my apprehension.
We will not have strong cities, towns and neighborhoods without school systems aligning their policy approach to that objective. A city trying to rebuild its core neighborhoods -- the most financially productive, resilient and adaptable part of the community -- faces a tremendous uphill battle when the school district is undermining that effort. Doing so not only damages the city and its residents, it's bad business financially for the school district.
We're going to explore these ideas and more this week at Strong Towns as we focus on education and schools. There are a lot of areas of concern, but a lot of success stories from around the country too. We're going to focus on both. Check back often to be part of the conversation and help us get our school systems on board for building strong towns.