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Board rescinds Prairie View demolition vote

This architectural rendering shows what the facade of a potential senior living facility utilizing the Prairie View Elementary school's building could look like. The Ellsworth School Board voted 5-2 to weigh its options concerning Prairie View and Lindgren. Image courtesy of Prairie View Senior Living

Ellsworth School Board members shared their differing points of view on whether to demolish Prairie View Elementary School and Lindgren Early Learning Center or put the properties on the market in their board meeting held on Monday, Nov. 13.

The discussion led to a 5-2 vote to rescind the board's previous vote to demolish Prairie View and to vote on the matter again in a future board meeting. Susan Beck, the board's clerk, and vice-president Katie Feuerhelm made up the two "no" votes.

Prior to the vote, Board President Doug Peterson addressed Lindgren's current status and how the building's deal did not go through due to financing, and said that what the board chooses to do with Prairie View may lead them down the path of what they do with Lindgren.

Peterson gave a recap on the board's previous vote to demolish Prairie View and to sell the property as vacant land. He also brought up previous community feedback about the future of the Hager City elementary school.

"I think the concerns that have been expressed in the past were not wanting to leave the building to be a potential blight to the community, the uncertainty of what the property could become, if there would be any interest if the building were on the market, and what kind of interest may be shown in the property," he said.

Peterson said that he thinks a lot of these concerns are just perception, and he sees Prairie View — and Lindgren — as an opportunity to generate tax revenue for the town and county, similarly to the building that was once Sunnyside Elementary School.

"I think that's something that we struggle with in Pierce County," Peterson said about generating tax revenue. "We don't grow as quickly as St. Croix County, we're right behind them, but we don't have a lot of the same opportunities for spreading our tax base to retail and commercial entities like they do."

The board president said he thought Prairie View and Lindgren presented opportunities to spread Ellsworth's tax base and take some of the burden off of residential taxpayers.

Feuerhelm also shared her opinion on the future of Prairie View.

"I would appreciate having the building removed," Feuerhelm said. "What we know about it, the condition, and the fact that we just decided to not operate our school district that way that we have a responsibility to take down what we put that out to be, an educational building."

Feuerhelm said she lives by Sunnyside and that she spoke to two different people who both said that the township should do something about making Sunnyside's property look nicer.

"That really spoke to me, because I thought the school district kind of just passed that problem to the township," Feuerhelm said, "and by us getting out of that building, for cheap or whatever we did, that laid that problem on someone else now."

Feuerhelm said the residents who live near Prairie View should have more of a say in what happens to the property, because they know that community best.

Feuerhelm said that she would also prefer that Lindgren be torn down as well rather than be sold to someone else.

Peterson counter-argued Feuerhelm's statements about tearing Lindgren down by saying, "We could just as easily tear that building down and sell it as vacant land, and the buyer could decide to let it grow into scrub brush, cockaburrs and sand burrs — probably not what the community would like to see, either."

Beck agreed with Feuerhelm's points, and said that she lives in the village and drives past the old junior high on a daily basis and has seen what the building has turned into.

Peterson said that he originally shared the same thoughts as Beck and Feuerhelm, but that seeing community support behind a petition signed by 1,000 residents to keep the building standing helped sway his opinion on the matter.

"I've tried to make a mental pros and cons list, and I just see the pros column being longer than the cons column, in my book," Peterson said.

Board member Jeff Stockwell weighed in by saying he thought the board needed to go one way or the other, meaning they couldn't tear down one of the former elementary school buildings and put the other back on the market.

Stockwell proposed the board put both properties on the market for 60 days. Member Kurt Buckner shared Stockwell's thoughts of putting the properties on the market as is.

Board member Gary Brown said he could see both sides to the argument. His kids attended the old junior high and he feels it's a shame what has become of the building, but the board shouldn't use the junior high's outcome as their deciding point for what to do with Prairie View.

"That's not necessarily what it's going to be," Brown said about comparing Prairie View to the old junior high. "There's an equal chance that it could turn out to be a great opportunity." He too was in favor of marketing Prairie View for 60 days and seeing the response that it gets.

During the public comment portion of the meeting, Cathy Swanson, a Bay City resident and retired educator from St. Francis Elementary School, shared her concerns with the board on their hesitance to demolish Prairie View.

"All of my family lives directly across from Prairie View school," Swanson said. "We are currently residential, is my understanding, and we'd like to remain that way."

First, Swanson expressed her concern about the proposal to turn Prairie View into a senior residential facility, which she clarified is different from assisted living.

She was also concerned that people had been led to believe that the Panther's Kids Club could be housed in the same building and said, "As a former before- and after-school director, and a former daycare director, I know that if the school district wants to have before- and after-school in their buildings, that's fine, but when you try to license a program that is not in a school building, the state has very strict guidelines."

Swanson doesn't think seniors will want their building filled with children and parents coming in and out of the parking lot, and said that if seniors don't buy into the building, she's afraid it will just turn into another apartment building.

"My worst nightmare of course is that, if the project can't go on, that it is simply tabled and we'll end up with another old, vacant school building falling into disrepair where the rats dwell and other less-desirable folks come to hang out, fill the walls with graffiti and break windows," Swanson said. "Of course under this scenario, our neighborhood property values plummet, and the health and welfare of our residents is in question."

Swanson said she believed the school board promised it would go through with Prairie View's demolition and encouraged its members to keep their word.

With the 5-2 vote, the board will have to decide how they want to approach the matter in future meetings, but are in no immediate rush to come to a final decision.

Other business

The board unanimously approved the following business items:

• Changing the name of the high school's current Leadership and Careers course to Leadership and Mentoring.

• Dropping Keyboarding as a course offering.

• Offering a Criminal Justice course.

• Dropping Computers 1 as a required course and adding Personal Finance as a graduation requirement.

• The 2019 International Club trip to Costa Rica.