SHERBURN – Voters in the Martin County West (MCW) School District will be faced with two important questions on November 7th. The district is asking voters to consider passing a $63 million bond referendum to build a new school building to house all students grades pre-K through 12th and a new auditorium and gym for an additional $9 million.
Superintendent Corey Reynolds explained how the district got into this situation.
The district has four school buildings, but students are currently spread across three. Sherburn Elementary houses those in preschool through 2nd grade, Trimont Middle School has 3rd through 6th grades, along with several preschool classes, and Martin County West High School in Sherburn has students in 7th through 12th class. The school building at Wellcome has not had students in it for several years, although it has been used for other purposes. Reynolds said at this point they are waiting to have funds available to demolish it.
There are just under 700 students enrolled in the district and about 130 employees. These approximately 820 people are spread over the three buildings.
“The proposal is for a new school building for all of our students from preschool through 12th grade. All the kids, all the staff under one roof,” Reynolds said.
She explained that there are three main factors behind the project: the budget, the condition of the current buildings, and the adequacy of those buildings to provide the education the district wants to give students.
“We are taking care of more buildings than we can afford with the number of students we have,” Reynolds explained.
Speaking about the budget, she said the district has been operating at a deficit for years and the only thing big enough to change it is buildings.
As for the condition of the current buildings, a study done last year by ISG Architects and Engineers found that between the three buildings, about $30 million is needed over the next 20 years to bring the buildings up to code.
“It includes the roof, plumbing and site issues. they must be brought to an accessibility code,” Reynolds said.
A concern shared by Reynolds and the school board is that while $30 million is a lot of money, the work done at that price still won’t help address the third problem: the educational adequacy of the buildings.
“I say a lot of times we have too much wrong space. Spaces like our career and technical labs and classrooms are really undersized with low ceilings, tight spaces and little storage space.” Reynolds said.
She noted that the new robotics program does not have a meeting place at the high school and instead meets in a computer lab at the elementary school.
“We’re doing amazing things with the Martin County West buildings, it’s just in spite of the buildings, not the space we want. And we’re growing in ways that buildings can’t handle,” Reynolds said.
The elementary school building was built in 1969, the high school building in 1954 and the middle school building in 1959.
“They have been there for years and were built for a different time. In 1973, Title IX went into effect, so girls’ sports became something high schools had to offer. We essentially doubled the number of extracurriculars offered, but the space didn’t change,” Reynolds said.
Before coming up with the current plan to build a new school building, the school board is exploring options for expanding one or two of the current school buildings. However, the cost of doing heavy remodeling and adding on to one or two of the buildings was close to the cost of building a new building.
On Nov. 7, voters will first be asked to appropriate $63 million for a new preschool through 12th grade building that will sit on the site of the current high school building. It will be 147,000 sq. ft. and will include an eight-lane track and soccer field, parking, several playgrounds, additional classroom space to allow for growth, five fitness courts, a cafeteria with flexible space for school and community events and etc.
The $63 million includes the estimated costs that the architects and the construction company have come up with not only for a new building, but also for fitting out the building, as well as money to demolish the current buildings. Reynolds, however, said the hope is that the communities where the current buildings are located can find a use for them.
“I’ve been talking to both cities to talk about the possibilities of repurposing the buildings. I think officials in both cities are thinking about that.” Reynolds said.
The second ballot question will ask voters to support a 400-seat auditorium and a $9 million gym addition to the school.
“The second question depends on passing the first,” Reynolds said.
She explained that the second question was added to give voters a choice. She cited the community study that came out in the spring testing the concept of a single-story school and a single-story new school.
Reynolds said they received about 1,000 responses and that the idea of a one-building neighborhood was overwhelmingly positive, as was support for the building being new.
In the survey, people can also choose what amenities they would like to see. Although one song was most strongly supported, this is included in the plans for a new school. One of the other things supported was an audience.
“We don’t have much room for performances or speakers at this time,” Reynolds explained
The drama department currently puts on shows at the community theater downtown, and while Reynolds said they are fortunate to have this partnership, there are also concerns about accessibility.
As for the tax impact on people in the MCW school district, those with a home assessed at about $108,700 would see an impact of $235 a year and an additional $36 a year if the second question also passes for a total of $271 a year. The bond is for 20 years.
“We estimate an interest rate of 5 percent. We’ll know more when the bonds actually sell, but this is a conservative estimate. Reynolds said.
If the referendum doesn’t pass, the district will have to consider the issues driving it, which include the budget, the condition of the buildings and how it can get closer to providing students with the education they want.
“Like any budget, when you’re in deficit mode, you can either cut spending and/or increase revenue. We’ll probably have to do a combination of both.” Reynolds said.
The district is limited in how it can raise revenue because the amount of money it receives from the state is dictated by the number of students enrolled, so Reynolds said they will have to consider asking voters to support an operating levy .
“We have a current operating levy that expires in 2026. If that doesn’t pass, it makes sense to me for the school board to discuss how to renew it,” Reynolds said.
Another thing to look at is how to cut costs, which will include budget cuts. Reynolds said they would like to start as far away from the classroom as possible.
“We’re going to start with things like reducing our ads. So we wouldn’t advertise our jobs, which is difficult in a job market like this when we’re having trouble finding teachers,” she said.
They will also look at walking distances and ask students who can walk to school to do so instead of being picked up by a bus. Extracurricular activities and athletics will have to be addressed, and if some drop out, it could hurt enrollment, which would mean less money for the district.
Ultimately, Reynolds said they’ll have to think things through in the classroom. She said they currently offer art and music, but are only required to offer one. They will also have to look at class sizes and teachers, which is something the school board hasn’t been concerned with since it was committed to small class sizes at MCW.
If the referendum passes, work would begin immediately, though Reynolds noted it would be a nine- to 12-month planning process.
“We hope to meet a schedule that allows us to open the doors to the new school building in time for the 2026-27 school year.” she said.
As for the community response so far, Reynolds acknowledged that there are passionate people who have organized advocacy on both sides of the issue.
“There are passionate people who love Martin County West and want the best for it, but who have different opinions about what should happen,” she said.
In the end, Reynolds said he believes common sense will prevail. She said the district has provided information and shared that about 12 public meetings have been held in the past year.
“We’ve done everything we can to make sure people know what’s going on here.” Reynolds said.
There are about 2,700 registered voters in the MCW school district and about 250 have already voted early.
There is a detailed report from ISG on the school’s website about the $30 million in work needed for the three current buildings. Community survey results are also available on the website at martin.k12.mn.us.