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Kelliher School District receives grant to start community library

Kelliher School District hopes to save money and strengthen the rural community by expanding its former school building as a community center.

The school district will be accepting an $82,500 grant to install a community library and make energy-efficient improvements to the former Kelliher school building, which is owned by the district.

The grant is through the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development program, and comes from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, signed into law in February 2009.

Kelliher Superintendent Tim Lutz said he applied for the grant after state and federal funding to the district had decreased in recent years. Lutz said he usually looks for energy-related or facility-related grants, so when he saw what the USDA was offering, he "jumped on it."

With help from Kathy Luepke of Bemidji's USDA office, Lutz wrote and submitted the grant, which took all of last summer to finalize. He was notified in September the district would be receiving the grant.

"I'm very excited," Lutz said of the grant. "The district is constantly asking for tax dollars to run the school. This is a way we can give back to the community and continue the partnership with the community in educating people from birth to death."

The portion of the former Kelliher School that still stands was built in 1963. After the new school was built 13 years ago, the old school was renovated and the older portion (pre-1963) was demolished.

The district has since maintained and managed the old school building, but heating and maintaining the existing building is costing the district about $40,000 a year, according to business manager Laura Nelson.

Lutz would like to see the old school become a viable community center and make the building more energy efficient, which would cost the district fewer dollars.

Since the district built its new school, it has tried over the years to lease the building to other programs and organizations. Sanford Health has operated a clinic in the building two days a week for the past 10 years, Lutz said. A community work-out center was put in several years ago. The local Betrami County Sheriff's department has an office in the building. The former school's gymnasium is still used for wedding receptions and for community and school theater productions today.

After previous attempts at trying to find a business to purchase the building, the district held a community meeting last year to decide the future of the former school building.

"The message was loud and clear from the community that they liked it and wanted to keep it open," Lutz said. "We decided to do what we could do to make it more viable."

Through ongoing discussions, the idea to start a library triggered Lutz to look for outside funding.

The USDA grant involves cost-sharing between the school district and the USDA. The school district would be responsible for providing about $22,500 and the USDA would provide $82,500. While this means the district will have to spend additional money to receive the grant funding, Lutz said the grant is worth it.

"It's a package deal," Lutz said. "The USDA is willing to give us money for the library if we would upgrade the current heating and lighting."

Other than a Kelliher Community Education-sponsored book shelf in town, the town has no public library. There is a library located in the new school, but Lutz said it is mainly only used by students.

The proposed community library will be located in the former sixth-grade room, which has since been used for storage. It will likely be open when during the same hours as the Sanford Health Clinic. Lutz said one fulltime staff will be hired and the library will likely seek help from volunteers.

"We're also trying to work with the Kitchigami Library System," Lutz added.

Down the road, Lutz said, he sees the community library as a place for retirees and seniors to learn how to use computers and the Internet to research health care services and learn how to keep in touch with family and friends through e-mail or Skype.

After the community library is installed, Lutz said, the next goal will be to add a community food shelf to the building, and possibly a thrift store later. However, he added, the district will likely depend on grants to pay for these projects.

In an e-mail, Lutz wrote he believes many rural communities are struggling to survive as they compete with larger communities within driving distances. He said he fears Kelliher, like many other rural communities, will continue to lose residents to larger cities that provide amenities rural towns cannot offer.

He reasoned a small town that provides a clinic, a library and a number of retail outlets and services reflect a community that can remain viable into the future.

"I want Kelliher to be a place that people consider as a safe location to raise a family or to retire," Lutz wrote. "One of my goals as a school administrator is to graduate students who are literate and prepared for the challenges of the 21st century. But, I would like many of those graduates to consider moving back to Kelliher some day in the future."