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EDITORIAL: How much is a carillon worth?

Northwest College’s iconic, 36-foot-high carillon has stood at the center of campus for three decades, but, for perhaps the first time in its existence, the carillon landed in the middle of some controversy last week.

NWC trustees passionately debated whether to spend up to $280,000 to repair the music-playing tower — that on top of a $60,000 engineering study to figure out precisely what repairs are needed.

During the Nov. 13 discussion, trustee Bob Newsome gave voice to what we suspect is a commonly held view around Park County: “In the current economic state of Wyoming and the college, it seems like an awful lot of money to be putting into something that really doesn’t enhance students,” Newsome said.

In the wake of cuts to programs and staff at NWC, it is startling to see the college spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a structure that’s main function is decorative.

However, the majority of trustees believed the eroding carillon was worth the expense of saving.

Trustee Carolyn Danko described the tower as “an identifier for our campus.”

“It is the one thing on this campus that sets us apart from all the others. It’s on our logo, it’s what we stand for. It really enhances the college,” Danko said.

We agree. In fact, we would go a step further and say the carillon is not only an important landmark for Northwest College, but for the entire Powell community. It’s a striking feature we take pride in.

Beyond the fact that it adds character to the NWC campus, the carillon is also a monument to this community’s commitment to the college; private donations provided all of the funding for the $25,000 tower to be built in the late 1980s.

The list of initial donors to the carillon’s construction reads like an abridged “Who’s who” of Powell and Cody. Even now, 30 years later, many of the donors listed on the program for the carillon’s Sept. 16, 1987, dedication are still faithfully supporting NWC.

The program explained that the carillon is “a memorial to families which have had a deep conviction that education is a powerful tool in enhancing the quality of life.” It was also one of the last projects undertaken by SinClair Orendorff, the college’s longest-serving president, and the tower was “kind of a parting gift” to him, NWC Foundation Executive Director Shelby Wetzel explained last week.

Certainly, the carillon means much more to the college and our community than just a stack of bricks and mortar.

On the other hand, however, every structure has a price and we wonder if the repairs now needed to fix the carillon are simply too expensive.

There is also some irony in the fact that the tower was built entirely with private money — from residents who freely gave out of their own checkbooks — but now is set to be repaired at a cost to taxpayers of more than 13 times that amount. That’s after a bureaucratic state approval process and a rather pointed debate among NWC trustees.

Trustee Dusty Spomer asked the obvious question last week: “Couldn’t we construct a new tower for $340,000?”

NWC Facilities Director David Plute said the work may prove so extensive that the college will basically end up with a new tower. But one complication is that the State of Wyoming has only OK’d “major maintenance” funding for repairs — not funding for a new tower.

“If we don’t repair it, we will lose it,” Plute said. “We’d have to tear the carillon down, and it won’t be replaced.”

The dilemma illustrates one of the pitfalls with the way our state funds education — designating separate amounts of money for new construction, maintenance work or for operations. It’s how K-12 schools around the state might be able to get money for a classroom renovation while teachers are losing jobs.

The state’s funding systems are complex, but we believe lawmakers should at least examine if there’s a way to make funding for schools and colleges more flexible, so locally elected trustees have a greater ability to address their greatest needs.

Had they been able to explore other options, perhaps NWC officials would have found that they could build a new carillon and have thousands of dollars left over for other projects, like repairs to Cody Hall. However, because of the restrictions on the state funds, we’ll never know.

Trustees voted 5-2 to move forward with the carillon repairs, so the college’s iconic tower should be safe for the coming decades. We hope that’s also the case for the college’s programs and personnel.

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