More School Money Madness

If you follow me on Twitter or are my Facebook friend, you know that I think the new Mankato middle school is a bad idea. You can read a great post about it here from my friend and Mankato native Nate Hood.

Luckily for you friends, I’m not here to talk to you about this school. Unfortunately for everyone (including the residents), I am here to talk to you about another school with a big price tag and little necessity.

We start our story in New Ulm, MN.

I’d like to preface this article with telling you a few things about myself.

When I was 12 I moved to New Ulm after leaving in Madison WI (Middleton technically). It was a bit of a shock. I was young and I had left everything I knew in Madison. My 15 minute commute by car to private school, my large 60s raised ranch home, and access to everything Madison had to offer for New Ulm, a tiny little (sehr!) German town in Southern Minnesota.

When we left I thought it would be the end of me, New Ulm was so BORING, but looking back, it’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me.

I absolutely love, nay, adore New Ulm. In my eyes it is one of the best cities in Minnesota. I actually plan on releasing a multi-part series on why New Ulm is such a fantastic city.

This is why I am very sad to report that New Ulm School District 88 is looking to pass a referendum on August 12th to allocate $47 million to build a new high school along with upgrading and renovating existing facilities.

Here’s the problem. They don’t need the high school, not at all. Much like Mankato, the idea of a new shiny school, especially high school, is tempting. It means progress, it means we’re putting kids first, it means we’re doing the right thing.

I wish this were true, but it’s not. This high school project will essentially ruin one of the great aspects of New Ulm–its sense of community.

This article is about to get in-depth, so if you’re bored, turn back now. I’m going to break it up into a series of sections with some imagery to explain my points as to why this is a bad idea. The point titles will be auf Deutsche of course.

Before you jump in, read the FAQ and referendum proposal here.

 

ANZAHL EINS–LOCATION

Below you can see the current location of the New Ulm high school, it’s located right below the valley wall (the hill) and is decently sized for the population (I’ll get into that later.)

current-site

Below you can see the high school’s true advantage.  One of my favorite parts about New Ulm is the grid system of streets it’s built on. It’s simple, easy to navigate, lined with trees and extremely walkable. You can see that pretty much everyone in town could get to the high school without a car, if they needed to. Biking is very popular as the roads are large and the drivers are aware and cautious. If you’re not going to walk, you have a very short drive to school. It also abuts the elementary school allowing for the dropping off of multiple children in a single area, increasing the efficiency of carpooling and/or busing.  All of this would go out the window with the proposed new building.

site-zoomed-out

And finally you can see the proposed location below, “somewhere on the west edge of town.” I should note that the Google Maps imagery isn’t up to date and I couldn’t get access to the Brown County GIS system. The large building on the lower-left edge of the yellow circle is a Wal-Mart, but since that has been built, New Ulm has seen a Menards, Hardee’s and a strip mall occupy the same area. The kind of stuff you want near a high school, right? This unveils yet another problem with the referendum, there’s been no blueprints, mockups or even a proposed plot of land for this school to go. Jump first, look second.

new-site
Moreover, we need to ask ourselves who this school is being built for. We know that millenials want walkability/car-reduced living, so why move the high school out to the edge of town? If it’s a move to draw in perspective families, New Ulm in it’s current form will do a far better job then a shiny new school out by Wal-Mart.

I actually brought a friend down from the cities a few weeks ago and tried to sell him on New Ulm. He and his wife were looking for a smaller city to raise a family. I took them all around New Ulm, they loved the city. Specifically the proximity (and walkability) of schools, work opportunities, and necessities. Today after I posted this referendum to my Facebook page, he said “This would make me not move my family to New Ulm.” You have to wonder how many people share his sentiment. 

In the FAQ section, they report this about the new school:

Adding gym spaces, a performing arts center and academic spaces at the current high school complex would take away existing green space, parking areas and add to the traffic congestion and safety issues with bussing. Building a new high school campus allows for us to meet the needs of the school and community.

Don’t believe this, not even for one second. This is an age old tactic to build an oversized, over black-topped nightmare. I would looooove to hear the superintendent tell me exactly how making everyone drive to the school and giving it no possibility of walking will reduce “traffic congestion.” The MNDOT traffic mapping app tells a different story about this congestion.

Screen Shot 2014-08-04 at 12.44.34 PM

You can see here that there are two main roads that you can get to New Ulm High by, Garden St. and Payne St. Traffic counts are 2250 and 1700 respectably. Clearly this “congestion” isn’t a real problem, but rather an embellished issue to push an agenda. For those of you unaware with traffic standards, a two lane road is at capacity at about 10,000 vehicles a day. This is still more traffic than Highway 66, though.

Even if this was a real problem, what’s our solution? Everyone has to drive or get bused and no one gets to walk. Hardly the kind of pragmatic, logical solution I’ve come to know and love from the Germans.

This is failing to mention that millenials are ditching cars and that VMTs  are dropping across the nation. I want to know where this congestion will be coming from.

Pushing this school out to the edge of town will make traffic almost everywhere in town worse because no one will have the option of walking or biking to school. When you see increase traffic in the city, you see decreased safety, not a trade off I would be willing to make.

 

 ZWEI–SPORTS

There is one aspect of this new building project that I see as a bad deal for New Ulm and her residents. Sports.

Johnson Field was a WPA project and is a celebrated park by all the resident of New Ulm. The great part about the park is that it’s used by all three high schools in town for football. There’s always a game there on Friday nights during the fall and it’s some of the best memories I had in high school (I didn’t go to NU High, but our team still played there.) In the spring, you’re sure to catch a baseball or softball game there a couple times a week.

Look at this image. I’ve highlighted two very important things. Johnson Field and the downtown.

DT-and-Johnson

Downtown is within spitting distance of those fields. Yes, your assumptions are correct, those football and baseball games bring a lot of business to the local shops and restaurants in the downtown. Here’s the kicker, New Ulm has a freaking gorgeous downtown. They almost completely avoided Urban Renewal and it has some awesome old buildings as a result. It would be a sad day to see a lot of these games be moved way out into the corn fields, if that is the case. I’m speculating because while the proposal includes building new athletic facilities, I don’t know if it plans to host games there.

Johnson Field is somewhat of a cornerstone of New Ulm. It’s a wonderful park and it’s celebrated as such. You can read more about it in this Star Tribune Article. Even so, it doesn’t really matter because sports participation is dropping. So, when talks of new athletic complexes arise, one has to raise an eyebrow and ask who it’s for.

The  current high school is also about a block away from Vogel Fieldhouse which has an indoor track, a swimming pool, indoor basketball courts, racquetball courts and other amenities. The school currently utilizes that space for a myriad of activities. Nothing wrong with sharing a facility with the public and the school system. We should get more into the mentality of sharing and not getting everything we want dedicated to our agenda. It promotes a better community and it saves money.

 

DREI–POPULATION

Let me reiterate my love for this city. I truly believe it is one of Minnesota’s hidden gems. That being said, New Ulm is not a growing city, but that’s okay, it’s part of what makes it such a timeless city.

New Ulm simply doesn’t have the population to warrant a new high school. Look at these population numbers below.

Historical population
Census Pop.
1860 635
1870 1,310 106.3%
1880 2,471 88.6%
1890 3,741 51.4%
1900 5,403 44.4%
1910 5,648 4.5%
1920 6,745 19.4%
1930 7,308 8.3%
1940 8,743 19.6%
1950 9,348 6.9%
1960 11,114 18.9%
1970 13,051 17.4%
1980 13,755 5.4%
1990 13,132 −4.5%
2000 13,594 3.5%
2010 13,522 −0.5%
U.S. Decennial Census

You’re looking at essentially stagnant population numbers for the past 44 years. New Ulm has hovered within 700 people since 1970, not something that exactly screams “we need a new high school.”

There’s reason to believe that small cities are coming back, but generally “small cities” refers to cities like Mankato with a population in the area of 50,000 or more, not 13,000.

It should be noted that Lafayette and Hanska both consolidated their schools into New Ulm in 1999, but we’re talking about cities of about 500 and 400 respectively–nothing that would throw anything out of whack and that was 15 years ago.

Now, I know that all this money isn’t going to build a new high school, some of it is going to renovate existing structures, which I think is a great idea. If they were just proposing additions and renovations, I would say vote yes. Aim to use what you’ve got, not what you want.

 

VIER–COMMUNITY

From the FAQ page:

How will this benefit our community and other schools?

We are planning community spaces in our buildings to be used for different events, community education classes and community organizations. Adding additional sports fields and gym spaces will help our sports associations have more access to athletic facilities that currently don’t exist. Other schools will have the opportunity to share field spaces with our school programs.

This is the carrot for the new school. “Hey give us a new school and we’ll give you some…community space…” Again, this community space would be essentially a waste. I lived in New Ulm when the new Wal-Mart opened up. It started as 24 hour and now it closes at 11p.m. Why? Because residents hated the idea of having to drive all the way out there to do their shopping. What makes us think that people would be interested in driving all the way out there to take community ed classes? Or to go to sporting events? Or drop off their kids? What about winter weather, out on the plains it can get very dangerous to drive when the conditions become dicey, something not a lot of people want to do.

It’s far more beneficial to the aging population of New Ulm to have community ed classes within a very short drive or even better, a very short walk. These community ed classes on the far flung edge of town will bring nothing but more traffic, more accidents and more frustration to residents.

 

FÜNF–CULTURE

When I was in New Ulm doing research for my multi-part article on the city, something struck me as to why New Ulm was so nice. Civic pride. If you go around New Ulm, you’ll see an innumerable amount of beautiful homes, beautiful parks and beautiful buildings. Below I’ve put together a picture of some of the buildings in New Ulm. There’s the Brown County Courthouse, the Glockenspiel, a downtown building, and of course, Hermann the German. The great part about all these buildings is that they add to the character, the culture, the essence of New Ulm. They are all located within less than a mile of each other and about 10 blocks from the current high school. A nice walk or a short drive.

collage

The edge of town is meant to be for our buildings that are necessary or desired, but don’t add anything to the true nature of New Ulm: Wal-Mart, Menards, Hardee’s, the strip mall.  Education is a German cultural pillar. We take pride in it as New Ulm residents and as Minnesotans. Simply put, we can do better, we have to do better than what this referendum allows us. Imagine taking a creative new approach to our existing building, renovating it and re-imagining it’s use and space, thinking about the legacy of New Ulm, not just the next five or ten years. Making that high school a building with weight like Hermann or the Courthouse.

I know New Ulmians(?) and they’re very loyal, they’re also very practical. I saw my Grandmother this weekend at a wedding and she was taking pictures using a small film camera, when I asked her if she’s thought about a new camera she said yes because “Hy-Vee is going to stop developing film.” She’s had this camera since I was a kid, but it still works and she likes it so she doesn’t need something new. New Ulm has the chance to be a leader. Instead of gobbling up big money for a big project, let’s take a measured and temperate approach and leave the high school where it is.  Vote no, but try and get some of the money, re-do the existing buildings, and show some other cities in Southern Minnesota (HINT HINT) that you don’t need to build something shiny and new to be progressive. There’s a good question about the taxes too, in town a home of about $100k will pay something along the lines of $60 extra a year, but the farmers who own massive acreage are getting a raw deal. I had a friend message me last night telling me that his family farm will pay about $50,000 over the next 25 years for just this project–pinkepinke.

If this means so much to a 25 year old guy who doesn’t live there anymore, I hope that it means much, much more to the residents.

Vote no on August 12th, we can do better. We don’t need a new school until our old one is “kaput.”

 

Photo from Doug Kerr on Flickr

About Matthias Leyrer

Matthias Leyrer is a resident of Mankato looking to restore a fraction of its old glory. He writes about the economic, aesthetic, practical and financial issues facing the city of Mankato going forward.