Is history repeating itself? 63 years ago, Mitchell weighed bond issue for new high school building
Fourth try the charm to build current high school, which opened in 1962
MITCHELL — Mitchell School District officials say a new high school is needed. There is debate throughout the community on what should be included in that new high school, and there are sides both in favor and opposed to the proposed plans and processes that the Mitchell Board of Education has taken that has led it to call for an upcoming bond issue vote.
It sounds like the current discussion surrounding the upcoming June 6 election, when Mitchell School District patrons will vote on a proposed $17 million bond issue that will help build what many consider badly needed athletic facility upgrades to go along with its new high school building, the construction on which has already begun.
But there was also an ongoing debate in Mitchell in 1959, when after three previous unsuccessful attempts, the voters gave the go-ahead to a $710,000 bond issue that allowed for the construction of the current Mitchell High School building, which was completed in 1962.
“The way is cleared for Mitchell students to move into a new high school plant Sept. 1, 1961,” read the Sept. 15, 1959, edition of The Daily Republic. “With overwhelming approval of a proposed $710,000 school bond issue, the Mitchell Board of Education immediately started making plans for getting construction underway at the new school plant.”
It was the fourth attempt by the district to gain public approval of the proposal that replaced the previous high school building, which had been built in 1909 and was located in the 400 block of East Fifth Avenue. The previous three attempts all failed to reach the 60% threshold needed to pass a bond issue.
Mitchell school officials at the time argued that a new high school was needed due to the limited size of the building they were using and the expected student body growth on the horizon.
Larry Ayers, now of Sioux Falls and a 1960 graduate of Mitchell High School, remembers that time and the condition of the previous high school building, which in 1959 was pushing 50 years old.
“That school had just been condemned by the fire marshal and was to never be used again,” Ayers told the Mitchell Republic recently.
Ayers recalled the undersized facilities, including the gymnasium, which, paralleling the current debate over the state of the high school athletic facilities in 2023, was inadequate for student athletes of the time.
“The gym in that school would not be big enough to even put a typical classroom today,” Ayers said. “One of the things (considered) was an indoor swimming pool, and that really got people up in arms. Part of that battle was (people saying), ‘Let’s quit letting our kids drown at Lake Mitchell because they can’t swim.’”
Like today, there were factions both in favor and against the proposal, and in some cases the process.
Members of Mitchell Citizens for Progress, a group that has been critical of the Mitchell Board of Education in how it has proceeded in the current efforts to build a new high school, have been vocal in their concerns throughout the process. They have also raised questions about why the board did not have a facilities assessment conducted by a qualified official to determine if an entirely new school was necessary.
In the 1950s, opposition came in the form of citizens who believed the 1909 high school building was still adequate for students of the day, as well as groups like the Mitchell Taxpayers League. In February of 1958, that group passed a unanimous resolution opposing what was, at the time, an upcoming $750,000 bond issue vote for a $1.3 million high school construction project coming up on Feb. 18 of that year.
The group felt that Mitchell taxpayers were already “overburdened” with other public works projects, such as a new sewage disposal system and a new armory. They offered a suggestion that some parts of the proposed high school construction be delayed.
“We believe that approximately $600,000 of the $1,300,000 cost of the proposed new high school can well be postponed by delaying the construction of some of the less sorely needed sections, with a resulting huge saving in the $325,000 interest on the proposed tax bond,” that resolution read, according to a story in the Feb. 8, 1958, edition of The Daily Republic.
Ayers said many downtown business owners weren’t happy about the plan, either.
“It was good enough for us to graduate, by god it’s good enough for you to graduate,” Ayers said of the sentiment at the time.
Ayers said he and several of his classmates conducted peaceful protests at some downtown businesses to show their support for the new school plan.
The Daily Republic endorsed the failed February 1958 bond issue in an editorial prior to the election. It noted that most agreed that a new high school was needed.
“That leaves only one question for voters to determine with their ballots. That question is: Shall the new high school be built as a complete unit or shall we construct the building piecemeal, postponing the industrial arts-gymnasium wing and the music-auditorium wing until enough tax money can be accumulated to do these sections on a cash basis?” the editorial reads. “We believe the record supports the school board’s proposal for a bond issue so that the entire structure can be offered for bid as a single, complete unit.”
In 2023, the group Vote Yes For Kids organized to encourage the public to vote yes on the June 6, 2023, bond vote. The group is campaigning for the current bond issue on the grounds that new athletic facilities are crucial to keeping the Mitchell district and its student athletes competitive among its peers at similar-sized schools.
With the final bond attempt on the horizon in September of 1959, groups such as the Mitchell Chamber of Commerce showed support for the bond vote that would turn out to be the final, successful effort.
For this attempt, the board of education had changed its approach to the bond vote. It broke down the bond vote into three sections for the September 1959 vote, with the public being able to choose as many as they wish. Proposal A would assure the classroom section was built, Proposal B would assure the student assembly portion of the building was built and Proposal C would complete the physical education section.
The Mitchell Chamber of Commerce approved of all three proposals.
“It is the unanimous opinion of the directors of the Chamber of Commerce that for purely economy reasons all three bond issues should be approved,” Ted Brown, president of the Mitchell Chamber of Commerce, was quoted in the The Daily Republic in an Aug. 8, 1959, article prior to the 1959 vote.
The Mitchell Taxpayers League also endorsed Proposal A, leading many to believe that the classroom portion of the project at the very least would be approved at the ballot box.
But Mitchell voters approved all three bond issues at the September 1959 vote. The Daily Republic reported that Proposal A received 75% approval, Proposal B received 68% approval and Proposal C earned 65% approval.
The sweep of all three bond issues surprised many, including members of the board of education and administration, it was reported. But they took advantage of the public approval and got to work with plans for the new structure.
“We appreciate the vote of confidence given by this community, in its approval of the three special school bond proposals,” The Daily Republic quoted Mitchell School District Superintendent Lloyd T. Uecker as saying following the vote. “This approval will make it possible for the board of education and the school administration to immediately start planning for a complete high school plant. We pledge ourselves to develop the best possible building with the funds which will be available. We will keep in mind at all times that the interests of boys and girls are always foremost in a public school program.”
The $710,000 bond issue translates to about $7.3 million in 2023 dollars when adjusted for inflation. Bids for the high school later came in at $1,381,278. In addition to the bond issue, the remaining cost of the building would be made up with capital outlay funds from the district budget that had been built up for the project over a number of years, Uecker said at the time.
The total cost of $1,381,278 translates to about $14.3 million in 2023.
The 1909 high school building was later used by Notre Dame High School, which had far fewer students and could utilize the structure more efficiently. It served as home to the school until 1970, according to clippings from The Daily Republic.
The September 1959 vote led to the construction of the current high school, which has now been in service for 61 years, longer than the previous high school building had been in use when it was determined it needed to be replaced. The new building is already on the way, with the board of education having elected to proceed with construction and the funds it had already secured. Construction has begun at the site on Capital Street.
But the question on its athletic facilities addition is again in the hands of the voters.
As someone who boosted for the project back in 1959, Ayers is hoping voters approve the bond like they did 63 years ago.
“There’s no question about that. It’s way overdue, I will argue that until hell freezes over,” Ayers said.