The other day I was wondering to myself, what makes the St. Cloud “metro” area different from the Twin Cities, aside from the obvious size difference? I think one of St. Cloud’s great qualities is how it changes from edge to edge – it has its historic downtown paying homage to the city’s beginnings, a commercial district with the more familiar car-oriented layout surrounded by suburban-esque residential development and, at its peripheries, rural expanses of farm land and natural amenities. A person can experience a little bit of everything in the greater St. Cloud area. My parents’ house is located on 10 acres of land against the backdrop of a pond, home to loons and wood-ducks, and yet every day I went to high school at the center of town.
I always loved that, even though I lived where trees and corn fields outnumber people, I attended school across the street from Lake George and within walking distance to downtown or St. Cloud State University. I imagine the experience of attending St. Cloud Technical High School (commonly referred to as Tech) would be even more energizing today, with the revitalization of downtown and the restoration of Lake George. All the more reason I was disheartened to hear that the St. Cloud School District has elected to build a new school, thereby vacating the 1917 building where I attended classes.
Before I get too far into this it is important that I make some disclaimers so that you are aware of my bias on this topic:
- I consider myself a preservationist and an urbanist. I believe that old buildings serve a purpose in the greater fabric of a city and that they are important contributors to a community’s “sense of place”. Furthermore, I believe that the best way for a city to grow is through appropriate, compact, mix-use development that makes the best use of land (versus sprawling, uncontrolled development).
- I am a member of Tech’s Class of 2005 and I have not visited the interior of the building since graduation. That being said, I’ve made an effort to have conversations with individuals with a more recent knowledge of its condition so I can better speak to it.
- I do not consider myself an expert on educational facilities planning; these observations are based on my independent research.
“But Claire, Tech is old.”
I’m really going to need those of you who support a new school to stop telling me the age of the existing building. Seriously, stop it. In no scenario will that convince me that the building is worthless as a high school. Now, you want to talk to me about its condition, the lack of amenities or challenges to meeting the needs of present-day educational instruction, let’s have that conversation. But the building’s age alone is not, and let me repeat, IS NOT a reason that it cannot continue to function as a high school. With that said – there are some major issues regarding the current state of Tech that need to be discussed.
- Renovation of any kind would require major updates to mechanical and electrical systems. The way that Tech has grown and been added to over the years has created a mish-mash of mechanics that heat and cool the complex. It will take creative design to ensure that a renovation properly addresses this issue in the most appropriate and cost-effective way.
- Moving interior walls within the oldest parts of Tech would require a structural analysis of the wall because some interior walls support the overall structure. Developing concepts for the effective use of space within Tech will not be as simple as moving walls around to expand classrooms.
- The current location limits any additional growth. Large athletic fields are not an option if it were to remain a high school. Some feel this is a huge disadvantage; I disagree. The lack of space for sprawling athletic fields which separate the school from the community is a benefit of Tech’s location. Currently, the school utilizes partnerships with the nearby college, middle school and public parks to meet needs for physical education courses and sporting events. When I was in high school we ran laps around Lake George since the campus lacked a track. Sometimes it became a challenge to dodge geese and their… ehmm, byproducts, and every now and then, when the wind was just right, you’d get slapped in the face by water from lake’s fountain. But, overall I enjoyed spending that time outside (aside from the running part, which I truly hated).
There are disadvantages to this arrangement, of course. If the off-site locations are not within walking distance, the students must be bussed (extra expense). Also, the negotiation and maintenance of use-agreements across multiple entities can require a lot of finesse. Ultimately, though, fostering these relationships has the potential to integrate the school into the neighborhood and strengthen the community as a whole.
- Clark Field, Tech’s adjacent football stadium is in rough shape. Deferred maintenance has resulted in sagging bleachers, deteriorating concessions and bathrooms in addition to mold issues, to the point that the facility is no longer used. Most agree, however, that Clark Field is an asset and efforts, led by the Alumni Association, are underway to bring “Tiger Country” back to operational order.
I don’t want to understate the importance of the repairs that Tech needs to continue to serve as a high school. But, more importantly I don’t want the conversation to get lost in these repairs. There are other factors at stake and it is important that they are equally considered.
School Location Matters
Tech is important to me. It is an old building we all know I love and it is my high school, a place that holds meaning to me. I associate a lot of sentiment and personal relevance with Tech. But just for a moment, let’s set that aside. Let’s pretend that I don’t have any connection to Tech, or even St. Cloud. I would still believe that the best use for that building is as a high school. Not for the warm fuzzy reasons that you may think cloud my judgment. But because schools, their location, design and condition, is so important to a community’s strength that neighborhoods can thrive or deteriorate simply because of a school (or lack of one).
For instance, picture the difference in surroundings between the two school locations (above photos show the zoning surrounding the two sites, below shows the aerial views of both sites -top is current, bottom is proposed). Homes, businesses, parks and other schools surround the current location of Tech. It is a well-developed, diverse neighborhood. While the new location is overwhelmingly rural, the residential zoning that does exist is underdeveloped and lacks good “walkable” improvements, like ample sidewalks for example, there are multiple places where the sidewalks die into the earth abruptly. Sidewalks don’t exist at all along 33rd Street (which is likely to be the front-facing street to the new school). I was given an estimate of 10% for the number of students that walk to Tech’s current location. This may seem low, but 10% is better than 0%, which is how many people could safely walk to the new school location as it is right now.
Walk Score, a website devoted to determining the “walkability” of neighborhoods, gives Tech’s current neighborhood a score of 78, meaning it is considered “very walkable”. What’s the score of the proposed location you ask? One. Moving the school basically rips away any opportunity a student or faculty member has to walk to school. I would hope that construction of a school would incentivize the city to make improvements to the area’s walkability. However, no matter the amount of sidewalks, students will never walk to the school if they have to hike across 100 acres to just to get to the front door (if the proposed land-swap between the district and city were to take place the school would be constructed on a lot of 102 acres).
Examining the Options
St. Cloud is a growing city. The population increased by over 10% from 2000 to 2012 and it is projected to continue to grow. According to the Greater St. Cloud Development Corporation the population growth is projected to outpace the state’s through 2035. This is good news. More people means private investment and increased tax revenue, which means economic growth and more city services. It’s important that St. Cloud take control of this growth and make thoughtful decisions about how and where it should expand. Clearly, city leaders don’t need me to tell them this since their currently working on updating the city’s plan for growth, revising and building upon the last updates made in 2003.
In looking at the plan from 2003, it is evident that the city has an intention to develop the land currently targeted for Tech’s new location. It certainly seems to have potential. There are opportunities to create beautiful park space around Neenah Creek and continue to add to residential development. I have no doubt that as St. Cloud continues to grow, this neighborhood at the edge of the city would benefit from a high school. But, I think there is a unique opportunity to decide what kind of community St. Cloud will be – will it be generic, sprawling and overbuilt, or will it be dynamic, interesting and a model for other cities? Part of differentiating itself will require St. Cloud to break away from the “business as usual” approach to growth and investment in the city’s future – so perhaps instead of building a new, oversized, school the city should encourage the district to consider the possibility of adding an additional high school to service St. Cloud area students.
I know people’s first reaction to this is always, “three schools would be more expensive than two schools”. My response is: show me the data that supports this statement. To my knowledge, the school district has not thoroughly examined the feasibility of moving to a three-school model. Regardless, schools shouldn’t be measured on a simple cost-per-pupil metric. Research demonstrates that smaller schools tend to pump out higher graduation rates, average higher academic achievement with fewer incidents of crime and increased participation in extracurricular activities. Not to mention that students report feeling of greater sense of belonging and teachers a higher job satisfaction in smaller schools. The “economies of scale” argument for large schools is often overstated. Viewed at a metric of cost per graduate, small schools tend to be on par, sometimes even trending less expensive, than their mega-school counterparts.
If you are a St. Cloud tax payer, you will be footing the bill for whatever school is created; don’t you want to make sure that it is the best choice for the future of the city? Personally, I want St. Cloud to be awesome, to be a destination and a place that I can be proud to call my hometown. I’m not here to argue about whether or not Tech needs repairs. It does. I’m not here to dispute that the school district is growing. It is. I’m asserting that building a new, big, high school on 100 acres of land at the edge of the city is not the solution. We owe it to the future of St. Cloud to make sure all options have been explored and that investing in growth at the city’s edge does not come at the cost of its core.
If you agree, contact Mayor Dave Kleis and encourage the city to take a more active role in the planning of Tech’s future. Contact the school district board to affirm that you believe there are better, more creative, solutions to addressing the needs of the school district. And if you are a St. Cloud area resident, vote against any referendum that would fund a new oversized high school. Get involved. Stay informed. Take a seat at the table.
Want to continue to research this topic? Here are some great places to start:
- Older and Historic Schools: A Roadmap for Saving Your School
- Older and Historic Schools: Restoration vs. Replacement and the Role of a Feasibility Study
- National Trust for Historic Preservation – Protecting Older and Historic Schools
- State Policies and School Facilities – How States Can Support or Undermine Neighborhood Schools and Community Preservation
- Why Johnny Can’t Walk to School
- Helping Johnny Walk to School
- School Building and Siting
- School Buildings and Community Building
- Education and Smart Growth: Reversing School Sprawl for Better Schools and Communities
- A Primer for the Renovation and Rehabilitation of Older and Historic Schools
- Renovate or Replace? The Case for Restoring and Reusing Older School Building
This post was originally posted on Claire’s blog www.fortheloveofmnblog.com.
Excellent post, Claire. Great to have multiple posts from local experts like this (and the New Ulm one) discussing outstate urban issues, particularly involving such important institutions as schools.
Thank you Alex! And I agree, I think the impact that schools have on the greater community is often overlooked and under-appreciated.
Will school districts never learn? How dumb can they be to propose a suburban-style high school way out by 94? There are dozens of case studies of the same type of fail across MN.
I know! I was just saying to a colleague – I can’t understand how, with the availability of all the research I compiled to write this blog post, a school district could POSSIBLY think that building a giant high school on the edge of town is the best choice. It so frustrating that school districts have such little oversight and yet such a huge impact on our communities.
Buildings might not “wear out” in a sense, but the reality is that at some point it’s more cost effective just to scrap them and start over when you figure out the costs of renovation to bring them up to code and modern standards, combined with future energy and maintenance costs. A 57 Chevy might be cool looking, but for a daily driver you’re a lot better off selling or scrapping it and buying a Ford Taurus.
Thank you for reading and thank you for your comment. Sounds like your mind is pretty much made up on this topic, but I’d like to make a couple points for your consideration. I agree that there are times when a building gets to a place, so far into disrepair, and rehabilitation is simply not an option (although, I’ll note that it is not the case with this particular building). My bigger concern with that argument is why and how these buildings get to that point. Isn’t it the duty of our school districts to maintain their institutions? By this logic aren’t we are basically saying to the school district – as long as you allow the building to fall so far into disrepair that it is no longer feasible to maintain it anymore then we will allow you to build a new shiny school where ever you want? We need to hold school district leaders accountable for their disregard of the buildings that they are responsible to maintain. If we don’t, then what is stopping them from building new schools and repeating this behavior while we continue to watch their buildings crumble and fall into the ground?
In regard to your second comment – I urge you to read some of the reports I linked to at the bottom of this piece. Let’s say, all other things equal and the operational costs of a larger school is indeed cheaper than multiple small schools, can’t you agree that this isn’t the only measurement we should consider when it comes to the education of our youth? I’m not diminishing its importance – I’m simply saying that in order to be objective we must consider all the information.
As for the economics of a small old school and a small new school vs a big new school, perhaps it seems so obvious to the people in charge that they figure why waste money studying it. Maybe you’d have the same pupils per teacher or janitors per square foot (or maybe not), but schools generally only require one principal, football coach, and head cook no matter how big they are.
And high schools have a big impact to a neighborhood. A neighborhood elementary school is one thing, where the pupils don’t have cars and the overall size is much smaller, but a high school has a constant parade of cars and buses. At my school the busing was so inconvenient that we had to walk several miles home from the bus stop (most parents had cars and picked up their kids from the stop). The result was a strict closed campus policy to try to keep on the good graces as much as possible, but there were still always complaints about speeding and students driving to school (we were told to use West River Parkway rather than 46th to avoid the neighborhood houses, but the parkway police were so zealous one student got a ticket for speeding on his bicycle on one of the trails.