Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #099. First published in the St. Cloud Times online Oct. 3, 2015; in print Oct. 4 

Public business is seldom tidy. Priorities compete, not all loose ends get tied up, never is everybody happy. There are always more reasons not to do something than to do it. (Even if it’s right, somebody will say it sets a dangerous precedent.)

But public business in a democracy is everybody’s concern.

And while everybody has an opinion (even saying “I don’t care” is an opinion), I make a point of listening mainly to people who know what they’re talking about.

This is why I find a Sept. 24 front-page story in the Times, “New Tech, Apollo plans becoming more clear,” instructive and persuasive. We hear voices of people who know what they’re talking about regarding the St. Cloud school district’s facilities needs.

There are architects. People who design and build things don’t get caught up in abstractions and “what ifs.”

John Pfluger, architect with the Cuningham Group, says “the deadlines we have for the project are very aggressive and we want to be able to meet them” — hence they are working steadily even prior to the Nov. 3 bond referendum. And he, who has seen scores of such blueprints, calls the St. Cloud plans “efficient” and “modest.” We won’t be getting “a Lamborghini or a Taj Mahal,” he says. “This is falling well into the range of other similar projects.” Pfluger knows what he’s talking about.

Pat Overum works for ICS Consulting, Inc. It advises clients on integrating design, sustainability, construction, and ongoing facility operations. In other words, Overum knows what he’s talking about when he says “the needs aren’t going to go away.” And he states that following a review of the project, the Minnesota Department of Education approved it to move forward as economically advisable. Note: “advisable,” not just “desirable,” not just “feasible.”

So we can spend a projected $100 million over 10 years for maintenance at Tech, and $30-40 million at Apollo simply maintaining the status quo. Or we can spend, over 20 years, $160 million for a new Tech and a thoroughly renovated Apollo, plus $7 million for security improvements and technology updates throughout the district, and have schools for the future.

Do you see what I’m talking about? I like a bargain.

There are teachers, like Matt Keil who teaches aerospace engineering at Tech after an 8-year career at NASA. He knows what he’s talking about.

Keil is one of more than 200 people involved in determining programming for the schools. He says, concerning the integration of classrooms with technology laboratories, science and art facilities: “That’s going to allow us to go beyond the textbook. It’s going to allow us to be cross-curricular — no matter what you’re teaching, you might work with science or math.” And the tech spaces? “They’re going to have resources any curriculum can tap into.”

Buildings designed for cross-curricular collaboration, where “going beyond the textbook” is not only possible but even encouraged, pay dividends in creativity and entrepreneurship way beyond their cost.

There are administrators. Longtime Tech Principal Charlie Eisenreich knows what he’s talking about.

The new design, he says, “means teachers might not have their classroom all the time, and part of that is because we don’t know what the class schedule will look like 20 years down the road.” I suspect 100 years ago, when Tech was built, most people assumed education would look the same a century later. It’s in fact way different. Administrators today expect it will be different again even two decades from now.

And people who know buildings know what they’re talking about when they consider infrastructure. Pfluger of Cuningham Group notes the entire mechanical system at Apollo is due for replacement, and this offers the opportunity to alter every part of the building, with the goal of creating “learning communities” connected to an activities wing and performing arts area.

In other words, Tech and Apollo will be learning communities where, to quote the district’s mission statement, we “prepare, engage, educate, empower and inspire all learners in partnership with their surrounding community to be successful in today's and tomorrow's society.”

My support for the Nov. 3 levy referendum is not limited to writing this column. I chair a committee of Neighbors for School Excellence, with responsibility for appealing to people 50 and over, of whom, at 76, I’m definitely one.

Others in this cohort have spoken eloquently in the pages of the Times.

You won’t find finer examples of lifelong civic commitment than Don Watkins and Ed Schnettler.

On Sept. 24 Schnettler, identifying himself as “an 87-year-old property owner,” writes, “I have always considered education as our best investment!” The levy referendum gives us all “the opportunity to invest in education and to invest in our community by voting yes!”

Watkins’s Sept. 22 letter begins: “We are a four-generation local family who attended St. Cloud District Schools.” When he was a student at Tech, “it was 35 years old and still a vibrant and functional high school.” But, “like me, Tech is aging.” “Let the community come together, rally and vote yes. It will not only pay short- and long-term dividends, but make our community more attractive to others.”

Don Watkins and Ed Schnettler support our legacy as a community for this still-new century. Follow their lead. They know what they’re talking about.