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School bond divides Cavalier

CAVALIER -- Lynn Schroeder, owner of the Cavalier Chronicle weekly newspaper, has never seen anything like it in his 30 years living here.

"I hate to see the town like this, split and complaining," Schroeder said. "It's ripping the town in two."

"It" is Tuesday's school bond vote. On the ballot is a proposal to spend $11.5 million on a building project that would be half-remodel and half-replacement of its K-12 school. The square footage would be similar to the existing building.

"People are either completely for it or completely against it," Schroeder said. "It's created quite a stir."

The newspaper hasn't taken a position, but the weekly has been overflowing with letters to the editor in the last few issues. It's easily tops all-time for letters the paper has received on one topic, Schroeder said.

He has a policy of banning letters in the last issue before a vote because it doesn't allow time for rebuttal. But Wednesday's edition included four paid ads -- all urging a no vote -- including a full-age ad that cost more than $700.

The full-page ad rankled educators and others because it published student test scores, using them to suggest money should be spent on instruction instead of brick-and-mortar.

"By reviewing the data of the Department of Public Instruction, the educational achievements of the Cavalier school are very poor compared to other schools and neighboring schools," said Dr. K.S. Sumra, a critic of the project at forums.

"More attention should be given to education."

The response of Garnett Furstenau, a local businessman who is co-chair of the facilities committee, is that the school building doesn't provide a good learning environment. The committee, established 22 months ago by the School Board, was open to anyone who wanted to belong.

"The committee's goal was to get a conversation going," Furstenau said. "Well, we've been stirring it up. We're seeing a lot of activity because the message has been delivered."

Fixing old structures

The $11.5 million project would require an additional 84 mills for 20 years. The owner of a $100,000 house would pay $378 more per year. The issue needs 60 percent approval to pass.

The project would demolish the 1937 and 1981 buildings, as well as gutting and remodeling the 1955 and 1962 additions. The facility has issues with heating, ventilation, electrical and plumbing. The project includes building a second gymnasium, which opponents have criticized.

Like the rest of the northeast corner of the state, Cavalier has experienced a dramatic enrollment drop. Enrollment has fallen under 400 students, less than half of its peak. Once a Class A school for sports, the school is now small enough to play 9-man football.

"We are close to flattening out in enrollment," Furstenau said. "Even if we're down in enrollment, it's still critical to have a good learning environment for students we do have. If we have only 15 in a room versus 23, should the 15 suffer because they're not 23?"

The 84-mill levy was picked deliberately. It's the same number as taxpayers faced two years ago. Since then, a 9-mill levy has fallen off the books and the state of North Dakota has erased 75 mills from each school district because of a surplus due mostly to oil production.

Furstenau concedes that there's no guarantee the 75-mill subsidy by the state will continue. But he adds that it's not a matter of $11.5 million or zero dollars. If the big project isn't done, it will take millions to do the necessary repairs and remodeling piecemeal.

"Or, eventually, the fire marshal might shut you down," he said.

Consolidation an option?

Gordon Johnson is among those who suggested that consolidation as a better solution. So, committee members checked with neighboring North Border School Board members, who said they aren't interested for now.

But Johnson said Cavalier should wait until North Border or some other school is ready.

"Consolidation offers our kids more, both academically and in extra-curriculars," Johnson said. "We need to upgrade the school, but the academic end should be the top priority."

Johnson was a member of the facilities committee, but left it after his consolidation suggestion was dismissed in favor of construction.

"We really should look at a long-range vision even past a 20-year bond issue," he said. "I thought we should offer the public more than one option."

Furstenau countered: "We chose not to wait because we have needs right now that need to be addressed."

If consolidation isn't possible, Sumra said, "forget about having a very elaborate school, build smaller and get on with it. No one is saying the present school is OK."

Furstenau said Cavalier can't wait for neighbors to decide whether they want to partner for schools.

"If we want our community to be vibrant, we can't just roll over and shut the lights out," he said. "To do that, we need certain cornerstones like the school and medical facilities. We have good medical. Now, we need something for the kids.

"We also need something for the community that says we're not going away."

With the arguments polarized, Schroeder hasn't found any undecided voters. "They're either dead set against it or can't believe anyone would vote against it," he said.

Those polarized voters include households. "I know at least one (married) couple where they will be canceling each other's vote," Johnson said.

Bakken is a writer for the Grand Forks Herald, which is owned by

Forum Communications Co.