Benson School Levy Should Be Our Focus

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By Reed Anfinson
Editor, Swift County Monitor-New

For the past several years, Swift County, the City of Benson, and Benson Public Schools have all been working to come to up with comprehensive plans for addressing what is called “deferred maintenance” of their aging buildings.

Deferred maintenance simply means fixing or replacing what is getting old and not working the way it should – heating and cooling systems that continually breakdown, pipes that drip, windows that don’t keep the weather out, roofs that leak, paint that is peeling, flooring that is worn, walls with mold inside, and the list goes on.

But remodeling facilities is also driven by state and federal mandates, new health and safety requirements from the Legislature, or courts, and new services required. Facilities are upgraded for better organization, efficiency and customer service. Changes are made to bring technology used by public employees up to date to better serve citizens.

In all, these deferred maintenance and facility upgrades of buildings will cost millions of dollars with taxpayers responsible for the payments.

This past year, the City of Benson built a new police station at the cost of more than $900,000 while Swift County bonded for $5.1million for the major renovation of the courthouse and upgrade of Countryside Public Health’s building in Benson.

Swift County is now moving forward with a $20,000 study of a two-story, 35,000-square-foot building that would house a new 25-bed jail, the sheriff’s office, human services, 6W Community Corrections, the county attorney’s office, and the Restorative Practices program. It is estimated that the new building would cost $15.6 million. It would be constructed on the site of the current county Law Enforcement Center, which would be torn down.

At the same time, Benson Public Schools is studying options for addressing building maintenance needs as well as essential facility upgrades that could cost between $20 and $29 million. It has brought three citizen groups together to give it input on the most critical building needs.

Those groups include farmers/landowners, who are supporting work totaling $17.56 million, a business owners/community members group in favor of a $20.99 million plan and the school district staff recommending a  $24.72 million proposal. Another $4.5 million will be added to address the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning maintenance costs of buildings.

The three groups were scheduled to meet again yesterday with the school board to discuss their recommendations at its first May meeting. A decision is needed by June 4 on whether or not to proceed with an Aug. 14 levy referendum.

At this time, the City of Benson has no new building projects it is pursuing.

With the multiple projects now under consideration, government leaders and citizens have to set priorities for what best meets the current needs of the county, school district, and city. For many who live in the area, there is a single, clear priority for public financing – the school.

The number of courses available to our children is dependent on the number of teachers our district can afford. The number of teachers we hire is dependent on the number of students enrolled since each comes with significant state funding. However, Benson Public Schools is one of a few districts in the state that sees more students leaving than coming in.

There are a number of reasons for our district losing students: We have a large district with people living on the edges who decide to attend a closer school; some like the “atmosphere” of other schools more; some are attracted to sports programs they see as more successful; some go because they work in another community and want their children nearby; and others go where they see a greater investment and support for education.

All three groups advising the school board have agreed the project undertaken must address critical needs, and when complete, show the community and people considering moving here attractive and “vibrant” facilities. While what we offer in the classroom is most important, it is the buildings people drive up to that give them their first impression.

The proposed school plans include an expansion of the Northside Elementary to consolidate early childhood and day care services. Currently, they are in the Junior High building. With the collapse of a piece of the ceiling in the Junior High auditorium, either a significant renovation of the 1928 building is needed, or a new one must be built. The auditorium sits unused today.

Proposed work also includes upgrades to classrooms, cafeterias, gymnasiums and other facilities that go hand-in-hand with overall scope of the work proposed.

Benson’s business community recognizes that quality schools are imperative to their ability to keep and attract new workers to the area. Quality early childhood and daycare services are a significant attraction for young families considering a move.

No story we’ve written in the past several years has gotten more feedback than last week’s story about the county’s plans for a new multi-agency facility. People who talk to us make two points:

Why is the county “stepping on” the badly needed school district levy? It is critical that it passes, but the county is jeopardizing its chances with its proposed project at this time.

And, why would they even consider tearing down the current jail and law enforcement center? It is a beautiful building that fits with the historic courthouse.

Taxpayers have only so much appetite for tax increases. Our schools are a priority. We sincerely hope the county board recognizes that and eases back with its plans until we get a school levy referendum passed.

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