STMA school bond referendum, an historic perspective

by Bob Zahler

Guest Columnist

I’m a teacher at the high school and a resident of St. Michael.

In 2009 I published “Faith, Family, and Farming: A History of St. Michael.” As an employee of the school district I certainly have an interest in seeing the schools get the needed classroom space as I am one of those teachers who currently moves between class periods to wherever there is an empty room for me to use. I also attend every home football game and try to attend as many other athletic games as I can; so I know first-hand the difficulty of finding a seat at both the football stadium and hockey arena.

Some people are finding it difficult to support the bond referendum because there is the perception that “wants” were tacked onto “needs.” Some may even think that approving such things is contrary to our small-town values; so I thought some historic perspective might be helpful.

In 1939 the city of St. Michael applied for and was awarded a grant through the WPA to construct the city’s first sewer system. A water tower; however, was not included in the grant, and so in order to have a complete sewer AND water system, the voters would have to approve the sale of bonds in a referendum. This was during the waning years of the Great Depression.

Progressive businessmen in town were convinced that the town’s commercial and residential development would remain stagnant without the investment in our infrastructure, and there truly was a belief that we had to keep up with neighboring towns in terms of growth and for a sense of civic pride. While a water system seems basic to us today, at the time some felt that running water was a luxury. They had, after all, gotten by this far without water taps in their homes.

The residents were bitterly divided in the months leading up to the bond referendum, and when the referendum passed in June 1940, and the water tower constructed, a red warning light was set atop the tower. The “vote no” people said derisively that the red light would be a reminder of the debt we had unnecessarily incurred. Within a few years new businesses and many new homes were built in town, and the opposition to the water tower was quickly forgotten as it was doubtful that the new growth would have taken place without the city sewer and water system in place.

Complicating the water tower bond referendum was the fact that the Catholic congregation, which included all those who lived in the city, had decided to build a new school in 1939, the current Catholic grade school. Again, common perception of our forefathers was that they were incredibly frugal and practical people; yet the school they completed and opened in the fall of 1940 included the town’s first library, gymnasium, theatrical stage (with lights and curtains), and several lanes for bowling. Certainly, none of these things were “necessities”, especially not the bowling alley.

The Wright County Journal Press included a special pull-out Dedication Section in its newspaper to celebrate the dedication of the school and all of the great facilities. In it they said “the new structure is one of real beauty as well as utility, and rates with the finest school buildings in the state.”

It seems that investing in the future and providing facilities for which we all can be proud really is an old-fashioned idea.

Bob Zahler of St. Michael is a teacher at STMA High School and a member of the St. Michael Historical Society.