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'The kids are ecstatic': Moose Lake opens its new school

A mass of students gathered inside the gymnasium of the new K-12 Moose Lake Community School to mark the opening of the $34.7 million facility with a group photo on Tuesday. Photo by Amanda Cisar

Billie Jo Steen grew up in Moose Lake and harbors a fondness for its resilient old school which notably survived the 2012 flood. She recalled wading into the library amid knee-deep water that July and wondering if school would start on time.

But when the community's brand-new K-12 school opened Tuesday, Steen embraced the turn of the page.

"The first day of school is always my favorite, because there's usually pretty good energy," said Steen, a 1992 graduate who is now the high school principal. "This year, the kids are ecstatic."

The students soaked in the luxury of a new commons area under a gorgeous mural just inside the school — a place to share the start of their day that hadn't been a part of their old school.

Later in the day, the students, some 650 of them total, came together for a group photo to mark the opening of the $34.7 million building which had been more than 20 years and five failed bond attempts in the making.

The flood — together with a nifty bit of legislation — changed everything, said Superintendent Robert Indihar.

"It was the spark that created the opportunity for a new school," he said. "It was the right time to pass a bond and build."

The state helped pave the way by paying 60 percent of the bill. The Legislature acknowledged that with a state park and Minnesota Sex Offender Program facility in town as non-taxable entities, citizens faced an exceedingly high tax rate on their own — one too big to support the full financial weight of a new school.

"It's been a long haul to get this building, including five years' worth of work to get the legislation passed," Indihar said. "But it's definitely been worth it."

The project encountered a late hiccup when the final bid package of six total — for on-campus athletic facilities — came in $300,000 to $400,000 over budget. An on-campus competitive running track couldn't be supported on clay in the way it was originally designed, driving up costs by requiring additional excavation, Indihar explained.

As a result, the district had to forgo separate softball and baseball fields which had been planned as part of the the original bond, and excavated for during the initial grounds work.

The school board has since supported funding the baseball field from other sources, and it is currently under construction. The nearby Willow River school district already was in charge of a shared softball program between the districts, and Indihar said a future softball field will be up to them to support.

"Overall, the project has gone well," Indihar said. "Unfortunately, right at the end we went over on the last bid package. We couldn't absorb any of the costs or cut anything inside the school, because it had all already been purchased."

The track required additional digging down of 4 feet and a sand pour within the trench to prevent heaving — a costly endeavor as anyone moving earth these days knows well.

But nobody was complaining on the opening day of the new school, which Steen said figured to offer students a better sense of community with the new building's amount of communal space.

"It feels like we've come full circle to have this beautiful new school," she said. "I'll admit it was bittersweet leaving the old building, but it's all worth it."