Like many Minnesotans, residents of Owatonna will vote in November on a school funding question. But the choice in this southern Minnesota community involves an additional issue: how much value to place on a set of historic buildings and their surrounding campus in the middle of town.
For more than 130 years, downtown Owatonna has been defined by a campus that started as a preparatory school, converted to a military academy and later became the now-closed Pillsbury Baptist Bible College.
With an eye both to serving such needs as technology services, adult education and historic preservation, school officials are asking voters to approve a $23.8 million referendum.
About half the money would go to buy and renovate the former college campus and the rest would add onto one of the school district's elementary schools, posing a question for residents that asks them to pay for historical preservation and education at the same time.
It's a question that has residents of the 5,000-student school district conflicted.
School officials set their eyes on the historic buildings and six-block grounds two years ago when Pillsbury closed. Jefts Hall, for example, would be turned into a technology center. Another building would house the district's adult basic education program. Two dorm buildings would be demolished to make room for athletic fields for the elementary school. A gymnasium also would be available for community education classes.
Minneapolis architect Paul Erickson, from the firm ATS&R, conducted a tour for residents through the structures earlier this month, showing off both the beauty and the needed repairs.
"There's tuckpointing on the masonry that's eroded and it needs to be fixed because it's a beautiful building with a lot of history and a lot of character to it," he said as he guided about 25 people through the buildings.
On the tour were Dale and Denise Hanson, who were just starting to decide how to vote.
"I think it's a beautiful property," Dale Hanson said. "It's nice and close to the high school. It'd be a shame if it wasn't used for something like this. I like the idea of adding on extra activities, fields."
The Hansons have two children, both Owatonna alumni. But Denise Hanson isn't sure it's the district's job to preserve the property. She said the district needs a new high school, not just more athletic fields and rooms for community education programs. About a quarter of the city's households have school-aged kids.
"The only issue I have is how the high school is going to benefit from this whole proposal?" she said. "And I know there's something they just can't pay for now, but that's my whole issue. If we need a new high school and it's not sufficient, they don't seem to be benefiting as much from this."
The proposed tax increase would be about $110 a year for the owners of a $150,000 home, the district average.
Voters here have rejected three recent ballot initiatives. In 2008, they turned down a $128 million bond referendum for a new high school and a new elementary school. Last year, school officials reduced the amount to $30 million to purchase the Pillsbury campus, but that failed, too.
But Superintendent Tom Tapper said the purchase goes beyond a school funding question.
"There's a strong sense within the community that it needs to be preserved," Tapper said. "And because it's just one block away from our high school, because it's right across the street from our elementary school, it just makes a lot of sense."
Student enrollment in the district has been steady in the past few years, Tapper said. But the schools were built in the 1950s and 1960s, and additional space would give technology and athletic programs the ability to develop, he said.
"Our kids learn differently today," Tapper said. "You know, we have computer labs that we're trying to cut out of different spaces. One of our elementary buildings essentially doesn't have a media center. It's in a hallway."
Resident Tom Streit said he's still undecided on the question of buying the spacious old buildings with the twin goals of adding educational facilities and preserving history. "There's a lot they can use but a lot they don't need here, too. I don't know."
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