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Wild day capped by approval

The panic button over the selection of 208 acres of land for a future school campus may have been pushed prematurely.

On a 78-23 vote at a Special Annual Meeting of the New Richmond school district, local residents approved the tract northeast of the airport as the preferred site of a new high school and future buildings.

The vote capped a wild few days, which found school board members taking airplane rides and school officials conducting whirlwind meetings.

District, city and airport officials were scrambling to determine if the property was suitable for new buildings. A letter from the state two months ago alluded to concerns with the land, but it took a looming Monday deadline to get things moving fast.

By Monday night, most issues seemed to be hammered out.

John Dorcey, aviation consultant with the state Bureau of Aeronautics, drove up from Madison to offer his advice on the situation. Dorcey wrote a letter Dec. 3 asking the district to coordinate with the airport and city to ensure that airport interests were protected. Some, including school board member Bill Brennan, Jr., took the letter to mean the site was unsuitable for schools.

Dorcey said the letter was intended to get the various parties talking. It worked.

New Richmond airport manager Mike Demulling said the 12 hours leading up to Monday's meeting were a bit crazy.

Demulling provided fly-overs to Superintendent Craig Hitchens and board members Brennan, Chris Skoglund and Andy Lieffort.

The district, city and airport officials had numerous conversations and several meetings to talk about the issues related to the airport.

"All parties were on the same page," Superintendent Craig Hitchens said. "We feel like we're 80 percent of the way to resolving the issues."

Lieffort said all parties concluded that it was safe for the district to move ahead with the possible purchase of the land.

"We can accommodate the needs of both the airport and the school," he told those in attendance at Monday's special annual meeting.

Board President Judy Remington noted that only a few board members were privy to the information gathered over the previous few days.

She said she would support a motion to delay action on approval of the site until more research is completed.

"These issues are very much unresolved," she said.

Her suggestion was met with jeers from the audience, which caused her to discontinue her opinion.

After residents questioned the content of the Dec. 3 letter, Dorcey clarified that "concern" was too strong a word to describe the state's stance on the site.

"The most important thing you want to have is awareness," he said. "The land is best utilized with safety being the most important thing."

He said a school was recently constructed near the Superior airport, and federal officials are seeking to force the city to return grant monies because of the safety hazards the building creates.

Another proposed school near the Janesville airport is also getting great scrutiny, Dorcey said.

Dorcey said the New Richmond site and plan is a good example of how an airport and school can co-exist.

"After talking today, I feel a lot better about the entire parcel and plan," he said.

In a later interview, Board member Lester Jones said the state doesn't want to see several buildings lumped together on the site.

If a pilot finds themselves in trouble, airport experts like to see "options" for emergency landing, Jones explained. By spacing out any buildings on the proposed site, those landing options would be available.

He also noted that the annual meeting approval did not mean the site would be purchased. Jones said the district will continue to study the issues surrounding the land and make the best possible decision for the students and district.

"We're not telling you that it's 100 percent going to happen," he told the crowd. "This is what we feel is going to work. That's not a guarantee."

During the lengthy annual meeting, residents asked if other parcels had been considered for the school.

Board members noted that the $10,000 per acre price was exceptional, and few 200-acre sites are available for sale near New Richmond.

"We viewed this as somewhat of a gift to the district," Jones said. "We were very excited about the opportunity."

Lieffort said the tract would meet the district's land needs for many years, and at a reasonable price. He noted other property in the area carried a price tag double or triple the Fritz Friday land.

Responding to a question about aircraft noise, the district architect said extra sound proofing could be done. The added insulation would also pay off in the long run with lower energy costs.

About $2.1 million of the $54 million April 5 referendum is earmarked for the purchase of the land. Another $1 million is earmarked for site work and connecting the site to city sewer and water.

Remington said the land purchase is contingent upon annexation of the land into the city of New Richmond. The site is currently in Stanton Township.

Several residents said they were frustrated by New Richmond's lack of support for recent referendums. They urged voters to get on the bandwagon for improved facilities.

Diane Cook, Star Prairie, said talk of improving school facilities dates back 35 years when people began complaining about the middle school.

"It's almost as bad as the Stillwater bridge," she said of the long approval process.

Others said the district was rushing into a purchase before all the facts are known.

One resident referred to Hitchens' comment about 80 percent of the issues being addressed. Ev Tysdahl said he was worried about the other 20 percent.

"Do we know what we're getting into?" he asked. "There's too many unresolved issues. It shows you're not ready to proceed."

But resident Todd Kidder said it was time for the public to stand behind the school board and trust their judgement.

"We need to move forward," he said. "We need to show our kids we have a plan for them."

Nole Cook agreed. "I'd like to see it solved before I'm dead. We need to move on rather than sitting and talking about it forever."

Those in attendance voted to end debate on the issue and the vote was taken. If the April 5 referendum is approved, the land could be purchased. If the district decides to pursue a different piece of property, board members said the district could likely only afford a smaller tract somewhere else due to higher prices.

The referendum also calls for a new high school, an addition to East Elementary, remodeling to West Elementary and conversion of the current high school into a middle school.

Jeff Holmquist
Jeff Holmquist has been managing editor of the New Richmond News since 2004. He holds a bachelor's degree in journalism and business administration from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. He has previously worked as editor in Wadena, Minn.; Detroit Lakes, Minn.; Hutchinson, Minn.; and Bloomington, Minn. He also was previously owner of the Osceola Sun, Stillwater Courier and Scandia Messenger along with his wife. Together they previously founded and published The Old Times newspaper for antiques and collectibles collectors; and Up!, a Christian magazine of hope and encouragement.
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