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What to do with Whittier School?

Nobody seems to know what to do with one of the more important pieces of property in the city of Brainerd, the Whittier School site. The confusion comes from an attempt to align the priorities of the school district with the priorities of the neighborhood and the city. While a laudable goal, these priorities don’t align. Despite the political discomfort, the city needs to stop trying to make them.

School District 181 has closed Washington Middle School, Franklin Junior High School, Lincoln Elementary and Whittier Elementary – all neighborhood schools in the city of Brainerd – while building the new 5th to 8th grade Forestview campus in neighboring Baxter. While I would dispute the logic behind these moves[i], they made sense to the school board, the administration and, ultimately, the voters who approved the Forestview bond.

What cannot be disputed is that these moves have financially impacted the city of Brainerd, and not in a good way. While Baxter and the other communities around Brainerd can offer more raw space at a cheaper price, Brainerd’s selling point is the amenity of great neighborhoods. That means nice parks, great restaurants, good retail and quality schools all embedded in neighborhoods that are pleasant and walkable.

For Brainerd to be successful, living in the city must essentially be a quality over quantity proposition. There is no more important factor for a family’s quality of life than the quality and convenience of the schools they send their kids to. A generation ago, families living in Brainerd could wake their kids after 7:00 AM, feed them a good breakfast and see them off for a short walk to school. Now 5th through 8th grade students living in Brainerd must get up unreasonably early and then spend the equivalent of an entire work day each week commuting to and from school. Few adults in this area would tolerate so much time wasted in transit, quick commutes being a key reason many locate here in the first place.

To improve the financial health of North Brainerd, Whittier School needs to be reopened as a charter school for 5th through 8th grade students.

This undertaking need not cost the city anything but some time and effort. The city should establish a committee – but please, not the same old suspects – to make an application for a charter and work on establishing the school. There are development opportunities on the east side of the site that, along with future lease payments, is enough to entice the right investor (or non-profit holding company) to acquire the property from the school district. With its zoning authority, the city ultimately holds all the cards needed to make this happen.

The school board is not likely to appreciate this effort. I was there when the Montessori Charter School approached the school board with a request to utilize space in the Washington building, a proposition that would have brought hundreds of thousands of dollars to the school district for space that is tragically underutilized. Board members denied the request indicating they didn’t want to support “the competition.” Today Discovery Woods Montessori successfully operates out of a private building near the Arboretum, their taxpayer-funded lease payment going to a private party rather than School District 181. Its presence has added to the Brainerd Lakes Area’s reputation for quality education, a benefit to everyone.

The city of Brainerd is not a competitor of the school district, but neither are their interests universally aligned. This is one instance where the city needs to act independently to realize a strategic investment in one of its core neighborhoods. Let’s not let this opportunity pass for lack of vision or leadership.

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Reader Comments (4)

Wait, Brainerd closed all the schools students could walk to? And they now bus students to Baxter? Shame on those decisionmakers. I would honestly be less likely to move my family to Brainerd because there are no walkable schools. Way to plan for 50 years ago. I don't want my future children on a bus an hour each day.

May 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMatt Steele

Know where I'd never want to send my children? Forestview Middle School. What a sewer of a location. You can tell just by the name. It wants to view what it destroyed. I grew up in the suburbs taking long bus rides to schools named after types of trees and names of lakes. I don't choose that for my children. Get it together Brainerd!

May 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMatt Steele

Living less than a block from Whittier with two small children, I share your lament of the Brainerd School districts policy of consolidating and closing the neighborhood schools, along with most of the Northside. I think there is another piece of the puzzle here though. One of the stated primary reasons for the school closures was dwindling enrollment (along with wanting new facilities). Why do we have dwindling enrollment? We don’t have tons of empty houses… so why?
The city’s zoning ordinances, along with many city decisionmakers have one goal that drives many of their decisions- to eliminate renters, or at least minimize and marginalize them, in town.
In this quest,
- Much of the city is R-1 which doesn’t allow new construction of multifamily dwellings, even duplexes.
-If there exists a duplex (or more) that loses its rental license in R-1, it automatically reverts to single family, and must be ‘de-duplexed’, even if it was built as a duplex.
- Setbacks and minimum home sizes are implemented in order to prevent single family homes being built that might become rental homes.
All of these things are designed to prevent renters, but what they do in addition to preventing renters is cause a steady population reduction in the neighborhoods, especially a decline in children living in the area.
Why? Single people, retirees, and DINKs who rent, typically rent apartments or condos.
Who rents houses and duplexes? Families with kids, primarily.
We don’t get to drive out the kids from the neighborhoods and then complain when the school district wants to close the schools.

May 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSarah Hayden

@Sarah - That is a brilliant insight. We totally agree. The disdain for rentals is a misplaced frustration with the symptom of bad policy, not the underlying cause. Manhattan has a higher percentage of rentals yet does not lack for investment. It isn't the rentals but the lack of investment and a lot of that can be directly attributed to the really bad development code we have here. So glad you are seeing this problem too.

May 22, 2014 | Registered CommenterA Better Brainerd
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