Selling the Orr School
School district tactics left others to clean up a problem it created

Orr councilors acted in their community’s best interests in offering to buy the Orr School, but ISD 2142 has shown a troubling disregard for the communities the district is supposed to serve.

The school district’s desire to shed itself of any responsibility for the abandoned school outweighed all other factors, including the treatment of assets valued by the community and the impact it might have on the city. While it’s understandable that the district, already troubled financially, wants to reduce its expenses, the answer to their problems isn’t just passing the buck to a different tax base with fewer resources.

That certainly wasn’t the scenario they sold the Minnesota Department of Education when district officials sought approval for their bond referendum. In a document to the state, district officials stated if it could not sell the buildings within two years, it would demolish the abandoned school buildings. But the state can’t enforce the deadline and, like many other promises, ISD 2142 simply chose to ignore it.

It‘s the same story with Alango Road. The district acknowledged potential safety hazards and said it would not send school buses down that road unless necessary to pick up students.

But that pledge was only made to get approval of the permit needed to build the new school. Once the permit was granted and the school built, that promise was discarded. Instead, the district has forced St. Louis County to invest money to upgrade the road’s safety at taxpayer expense while it pockets $12,222 in savings by taking a shortcut before key safety improvements are even made. Despite residents’ concerns about accidents and near accidents that have occurred on the road, the district has refused to budge, leaving open the chance for a disastrous accident.

The handling of the Orr School had the same potential to turn into a disaster. The initial offer for the school came from a buyer whose reputation and motives were both suspect. Even so, district officials didn’t think twice about accepting the offer. Instead, they saw it as an opportunity to force Orr’s hand.

It worked, but the gambit only angered Orr area residents. For a school district concerned about its public relations, it qualifies as an epic fail.

By forcing the city to deal with a problem that the district created when it abandoned the Orr School, the district acted like a schoolyard bully. Taxpayers in the Orr area will likely remember the tactic the next time the district proposes an operating levy.

District officials will undoubtedly defend their actions, arguing that the district can’t afford to demolish the buildings and can’t keep spending money on buildings it no longer uses. That may be true, but it doesn’t excuse their effort to dump their burden onto a small city like Orr with far more limited resources.

There were other alternatives. District officials could have included funds for demolition of the old schools in their original bond proposal, but they reckoned that bill would be too big for taxpayers to swallow. They could get their own financial house in order and start setting aside funds for the demolition of old buildings. They could have worked more closely with communities in developing alternative uses for the schools. They could have searched for tenants to lease space — even if just for cold storage — at the schools to help cover expenses associated with the abandoned buildings.

Although Orr was forced into buying the school, we have confidence that the community will invest the time and energy needed to find good uses for the building. Orr has long enjoyed a reputation as a town that can get things done when citizens work together, and the threat of a school stripped of all assets and left an empty shell has united the community.

There are risks, of course. The city will have to absorb the expenses of keeping the building viable and, if nothing materializes, be forced at some point to consider tearing down the structure. But there is potential, as well. At Tuesday’s meeting, citizens were brimming with suggestions for the Orr School, some of which have been incorporated by Cotton, where residents have turned their school into a beehive of activity.

Most importantly, Orr’s purchase of the school protects the building from a district that seems to have little value for its history or the future of the communities it represents. ISD 2142 didn’t just abandon a school when it closed the Orr School. It abandoned a community.

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This whole thing was a farce from the start. First off, the school board decided to hold a special election, rather than putting the bond referendum on the ballot at the regular election time. Why is that significant? Because people normally vote in their township or city in regular elections. In this case, they had to vote at the school house. There was much confusion over which school they should go to vote. Why couldn't they vote at the nearest school instead? Rumors are that people from Linden Grove Township were turned away from the polls at the Cook school, since most of their children either attend or attended the Cook school, despite Linden Grove is in the Orr School voting area. Also, amid the confusion, by the time some people learned they were at the wrong voting place, when they went to the correct voting place for this bond issue, they were turned away within minutes of the 8PM voting deadline.

Coffee shop talk centers around the decision to hold a special election, rather than the regular election day, was a strategy by consultant JCI in an attempt to both confuse the voters and to reduce the voter participation rate in order to let the special interests gather their troups to the polls. Shame on the people who complain about their taxes and the loss of their school. They didn't vote. Some of them depended on Johnson Controls and the District's public relations agency, the Cook News-Herald, to inform them correctly.

Look at most communities where a school was closed. The retail sector disappeared, the cohesiveness of the community disappeared and home values depreciated. This school board does more damage to a community than any Wal-Mart could.

Tower-Soudan has already lost the historic portion of their school through demolition. Orr may end up being demolished as it is unlikely that any re-purposing can be found in the private sector. In the absence of that, people are once again looking to the government (our taxes) as the possible savior. That's no solution. Frankly, the land that the Orr School rests upon is worth more than the value of the school and land together. Orr, if they are wise, will remember that.

The subject moves to the Cook school. With the size of the footprint of this school, the location of the central heating system from the pool and newer sections of the school make it prohibitive to find alternate uses for this beautiful building. Afterall, these buildings were built to be schools, and those pushing the bond referendum (eg. teachers union, school board, Johnson Controls) should have realized the consequences of their actions. But they didn't care...period!

It won't be until Orr and Cook realize the same consequences that Tower-Soudan, Embarrass, Toivola-Meadowlands and other Iron Range communities already have, that people wish they would have done more when it counted.

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