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Middle River School will close this summer, leaders decide

MIDDLE RIVER, Minn.—A rural school will close this summer after serving a small Marshall County community for nearly 70 years.

The Greenbush Middle River School Board voted 5-2 Monday night to close the Middle River School by the end of the school year in June. The last day of classes is May 24, and all of next year's students will attend the school in Greenbush, Minn.

Years of discussion have led to Monday's decision, District Superintendent Tom Jerome said. He pointed to the district's student numbers, which have been nearly cut in half in the last 20 years—from 608 student in 1997 to 318 children this year, according to school administration. Projections show the student body will continue to drop to 279 children by the 2022-23 school year.

On top of that, the district is projected to have a deficit of almost $520,000. Closing the Middle River School would save the district more than $400,000 in operating costs, Jerome said.

"The district has a responsibility to manage the funds that they have," he said, adding that its mission is to provide the best quality education for all of its children.

Some residents feel the School Board has created mistrust, and there have been moves to let another school district annex Middle River residents.

"I'm just totally heartbroken over this whole thing," said Arlette Pearson, a rural Middle River resident and alumna of Greenbush School who previously served on the School Board for 20 years.

No new revenue

The Middle River School closing has drawn mixed responses from parents in the district, Jerome said. Dozens of parents attended several public hearings to give their input on the pending decision.

Middle River School has more than 45,000 square feet of space, holds 20 classrooms and computer labs, and serves 27 students, the district said. The oldest part of the building was constructed in 1951, Jerome said. The school has made renovations to the building.

The nearly 80-year-old Greenbush School serves the remaining students, has more than 76,000 square feet and holds 30 classrooms and computer labs. About 700 people live in Greenbush.

Almost 90 children who live in the district are attending school in other communities, according to administration. The applications to attend school elsewhere were approved over the course of several years, Jerome noted.

Almost 70 percent of the voters turned down a proposal in 2015 to build a $25 million school near Greenbush. The proposal created mistrust in the district, Middle River Mayor Mark Stromsodt said, because Middle River residents feared building a new school would force the district to close Middle River School.

The School Board attempted to raise additional revenue to cover the costs. Last fall, the district asked voters to increase its operating levy from $806 per student to $1,825 per student, which would have generated almost $400,000 annually for 10 years.

The district also asked voters to approve a capital project levy that would have generated an additional $400,000 annually for a decade.

About 75 percent of the roughly 1,000 voters rejected the referendums. About 50 percent of the Greenbush voters said no, while more than 90 percent of Middle River voters rejected the proposals.

The votes were not in opposition to tax increases but to the School Board's leadership, Stromsodt and Pearson said.

"It's all shown that the people are not supporting the School Board," Stromsodt said.

What's next

The district hasn't decided what will happen to the building after the school closes, Jerome said. There is speculation parents could move their children to other schools because of the decision, he noted.

A school is a central part of a community, Jerome said, and he understands the emotional connection to the building.

"No decision is taken lightly," he said.

Stromsodt said he is "extremely disappointed" in the decision to close the school. Residents are looking into procedures on how to get their land annexed out of the school district, he added. The School Board rejected a proposal in March to allow that to happen.

Stromsodt's wife, Laurie, serves on the School Board. She and board member Joe Melby voted against closing the school.

April Baumgarten

April Baumgarten joined the Grand Forks Herald May 19, 2015, and covers crime and education. She grew up on a ranch 10 miles southeast of Belfield, where her family raises registered Hereford cattle. She double majored in communications and history/political science at Jamestown (N.D.) College, now known as University of Jamestown. During her time at the college, she worked as a reporter and editor-in-chief for the university's newspaper, The Collegian. Baumgarten previously worked for The Dickinson Press as a city government and energy reporter in 2011 before becoming the editor of the Hazen Star and Center Republican. She then returned to The Press as a news editor, where she helped lead an award-winning newsroom in recording the historical oil boom.

Have a story idea? Contact Baumgarten at 701-780-1248.

(701) 780-1248
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