As a $31.8 million Devils Lake referendum approaches, people on both sides of middle school issue speak out

Oct. 1—DEVILS LAKE — As a $31.8 million referendum election draws near in Devils Lake, community members for and against the construction of a new middle school building are trying to sway opinions before the Oct. 11 vote.

According to a facility study conducted by ICON Architectural Group, Central Middle School, the current middle school building in Devils Lake, will need an estimated $17.2 million worth of maintenance in the next five to 10 years to continue operations. Rather than continue to invest in the aging building, which was completed in 1937, the Devils Lake School Board, with the help of a long-range facilities committee made of community members and school leaders, determined the best use of taxpayer money would be to invest in a new middle school building.

In July, the Devils Lake School Board set the date for a $31.8 million school building bond referendum.

If approved by voters, the $31.8 million would fund a new middle school building and an addition to Prairie View Elementary School. The new middle school would be located between the existing high school and Lake Area Career and Technology Center on the north end of Devils Lake.

But, CMS is located in downtown Devils Lake, and those against building a new middle school argue that vacating CMS for a new building would hurt the city's central business district. Rather than build a new middle school, they are encouraging school leaders to invest in the existing CMS building and continue to use the historic building as a school.

"We're not against improving and updating Central School and Prairie View School. We just feel there's a better method of doing it rather than just building a new school up in what is a crowded area," said Mike Connor, treasurer of Friends of Central Middle School.

While the school district has looked into

options about how the CMS building could be used

if a new school is built, opponents of the referendum worry it will end up being torn down. Harley Piltingsrud, a Devils Lake graduate who now lives in Cincinnati, Ohio, got involved in the campaign to keep CMS a school building because he worries Devils Lake will lose a piece of its history.

"When they built buildings like Central School, they built them essentially thinking that they could last indefinitely," he said. "They used the very best methods of constructing the buildings, and assumed that the people in the future would maintain them properly and upgrade them periodically as was needed."

Gary Stenson, a Devils Lake graduate and founder of MetroPlains, a St. Paul-based company that specializes in historical restorations, feels the district should do more research on how CMS could be updated before committing to build a new school.

"I just think the School Board hasn't done a very serious look at reusing it as opposed to building new," he said.

On Sept. 12, Stenson, two general contractors and an architect who specializes in schools from MetroPlains toured CMS to assess the facilities and make recommendations about how the school could be renovated to meet the needs of 21st century students.

Among the main facility needs at CMS are a new heating and cooling system, a fire suppression system and updates to make the building compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Stenson believes it would be cheaper for the district to install an energy efficient HVAC system, ramps and elevators for ADA compliance and a sprinkler system than it would be to build a new school.

"Rehabbing is less — you've got the whole exterior, you've got the structures, floor plates, windows, all those things," he said. "Also, (it's) better for the environment. You don't have to cut down as many trees and manufacture as many windows."

Matt Bakke, superintendent at DLPS, says the decision to pursue a new middle school building came after months of exploring options. The facilities assessment and discussions about the future needs of the district have been going on since March 2021, and were guided by community members, parents, school leaders, architects and educational experts.

"They've put a lot of time and effort into this process, and it hasn't been something that just happened overnight," he said.

The decision also was based on a community survey, conducted by the district. Of 996 respondents, 21% said they support the idea of renovating the current middle school, while 72% supported the idea of a referendum for a new middle school, said Bakke.

Additionally, if the district were to renovate CMS, renovations would likely take longer than a summer, says Bakke.

"It would be a year, year-and-a-half process that would take some time and probably end up in relocating students in the meantime, whether it be in relocatable (classrooms) or whether it be in other buildings throughout the district," he said.

Others in Devils Lake are supportive of a new school building. Emily Foss, whose children attend Devils Lake Public Schools, worries about the safety of CMS and its ability to keep up with technological needs of students.

"It's a historical building and it is beautiful, but it doesn't meet some very basic needs that our students need," she said.

Jeff Frith recently created a radio advertisement in support of a new school building. He plans to vote yes on the ballot question come October for a number of reasons, including accessibility. Frith has used a wheelchair for 40 years, and said he has experienced accessibility issues in CMS as a School Board member and when attending sporting events in the gymnasium.

"It was built and designed to accommodate the needs of students three generations ago," he said. "When they were building buildings back then, consideration for wheelchair accessibility or mobility-impared individuals wasn't a topic of concern."

While older buildings can be modified for accessibility, they still were not constructed with accessibility in mind like new buildings, says Frith. Along with accessibility, Frith noted that the gymnasium is too small to host basketball tournaments and the classrooms are outdated for today's educational needs.

"I think it's the right move at the right time. I think it's something that's not wanted but needed in our community," said Frith.