Limited proposal, bleak economy plagued last facilities effort
On Tuesday, May 20, Independent School District 831 voters will go to the polls to decide the fate of a facilities bond proposal.
If voters approve, the bond will pay for long-overdue maintenance, repairs and safety enhancements at all district schools, plus restructuring at the secondary level.
It won’t be cheap. The cost is $176 million, to be borrowed in 2015 and 2016 and paid back over 30 years.
A facilities bond request of this magnitude is rare. It’s the largest one going to Minnesota voters this spring. This week Wayzata residents were to vote on a $109 million bond to pay for a new elementary school, an addition to the high school and districtwide infrastructure.
In March Shakopee voters will decide whether to pay for a new high school, deferred maintenance and security upgrades costing $89 million.
Last November the Mankato district successfully passed a $69 million bond referendum, and Hermantown passed one for $48 million. A $38 million proposal in Worthington failed.
The Forest Lake proposal does not include any new buildings, but it does change where secondary students attend. If it passes, all seventh- and eighth-graders will be at an expanded Century Junior High. All ninth- through 12th-graders will be together at the high school.
A new pool at Century, a new track at the high school and many other upgrades are part of the package.
The aging Central Learning Center will be put to rest and its programs moved into a repurposed Southwest Junior High building.
District staff will move into new offices at the high school, and the current district office building will become a staff development center.
The elementary schools, which have an average age of 50 years, would get much-needed repairs, heating/cooling/air quality improvements and security upgrades.
The bond proposal is based on recommendations of a task force of area residents who volunteered in 2012 to look at each building, parking lot and athletic field in the district.
But it’s not the first time a task force met to address the problem of school facilities wearing out.
In 2009 a different task force studied the issue, made a list of needed repairs and came up with a $100 million gap analysis (or $115 million, if a new bus garage was included).
At that time the country was in a recession. State funding was down, and district enrollment was declining by about 100 students each year, which further cut the amount coming from the state.
To address the budget shortfall, the district laid off teachers and froze salaries. It was not a good climate in which to ask residents for a major facilities bond.
After paying $21,500 for a survey of 400 residents to gauge voter support, in November of 2010 the district put forth a much smaller proposal: $24 million. The annual cost for a $250,000 home would be $75.
The $24 million would pay for repairs, security improvements and modern classrooms and labs.
But this was not the only question on the ballot. Voters were also asked for a new operating levy, an annual property tax assessment to increase the per-pupil amount available to the district.
Forest Lake already had a voter-approved operating levy in place, with a five-year term that would expire at the end of the 2011-2012 school year. It brought in $725 per pupil or $6.2 million per year, about a tenth of the general fund budget.
The new levy, if it passed, would be good for 10 years. It would bring in $1,195 per pupil, with a built-in inflation increase each year based on the cost of living. For a home valued at $250,000, the annual increase in property taxes would start at $194.
Both proposals were soundly defeated. About 20,000 district voters weighed in, and in both cases more than 12,000 voted no.
The operating levy was put before the voters again in 2011. Instead of an increase, this proposal kept the same amount in place, so no change in property taxes would result if it passed. The cost-of-living increase was also abandoned. The only change was increasing the term to eight years, so the district would not have to go back to the voters as often.
This time the result was very different. Almost 8,000 residents voted, 25 percent of eligible voters in the school district. Of those, about 5,000, or 62 percent, voted yes. The new operating levy started as soon as the old one died, and will continue to bring in $6.2 million a year through the 2019-2020 school year.
On the same ballot, the school board was also up for election that day. Both candidates who had publicly opposed the operating levy were defeated.
But facilities needs were not addressed. The list continues to grow, and the cost for each part increases over time.
To improve air quality at the high school, the district assessed property tax payers without a referendum by getting Minnesota Department of Education approval for a health and safety project. The $3 million cost is spread over two years, with construction in the summers of 2013 and 2014. The school district’s portion of property taxes were increased 9.5 percent for two years.
A new gym floor at the high school in 2010, and new tennis courts last summer, were welcome improvements. But most things on the list are still not done.
One major item is secure front door systems, which would let visitors access only the school office, not the hallways.
School board member Julie Corcoran, who co-chaired the Vote Yes committee in 2010, said recent school tragedies have opened people’s eyes to the need for tighter security. Parents’ top priority now is keeping kids safe, she said.
“I want my child safe, even if it makes a little inconvenience for me,” is the sentiment she hears, Corcoran said.
Rob Raphael, school board president, agreed.
“In my mind the top priority is the safety of our kids,” he said. “If a tragedy happened and we had not done all that we could to prevent it, it would be unconscionable. Items in the bond like key card entries, reconfiguring the school entryways, and enclosing the open classrooms are must-do items.”
Another difference between 2014 and 2010, Corcoran said, is the single emphasis on the facilities bond this time.
“I was more focused on getting the operating levy passed in 2010,” she said, as the district struggled for cash. And because it was a general election, other issues were on the ballot.
This time the facilities bond is the only question in a special election. Corcoran said getting people informed is the main task. If people know what’s at stake, they are more likely to vote for this major “investment in the future.”
“We call it the legacy project for a reason,” she said.
Superintendent Linda Madsen agreed that getting the message out is vital.
“We heard that we did not engage the community, did not communicate very well,” she said of the 2010 effort.
Madsen is optimistic, saying the district has engaged the community in a much broader way this time.
She cited the collective wisdom of the task force in reaching its conclusions, acting independently of the school board and of the administration. She praised the group for being dedicated and hard-working, for making compromises, for coming to a long-term conclusion.
Other factors that bode well for passage, Madsen said, are the unanimous support of the school board and the brighter economic outlook.
“It feels like it’s a better time now than it was in 2010,” she said.
The cost of the project reflects the scope. Deferred maintenance at so many district buildings is a large part of the price tag.
“The facilities gap analysis found a staggering number of areas like heating and cooling, windows, floor coverings that had long ago exceeded their life and needed to be replaced,” Raphael said. “This is not a set of luxury wants. These are critical replacements of decrepit interiors and exteriors.”
The school board, in deciding what to include, was thinking of not just facilities but also academics.
“Having outdated science classrooms designed for the 1950s won’t cut it if we want our kids at the high end of academic achievement,” Raphael concluded. “We need to get these schools so that they support, not obstruct, the education that our kids need.”
Other facilities proposals
The most recent building project was put to the voters on May 12, 1998 as a three-part question.
The first was for $19.9 million to build Century to replace Central Junior High (now the Central Learning Center). The second was $15.5 million for additions and improvements at district elementary schools. The third was $4.5 million for improvements and renovations at the high school.
Voters approved all three, with about 60 percent saying yes to each question.
A capital projects levy (not a bond), proposed in 2003 to fund technology upgrades and improvements at $2 million a year for five years, failed to win voter approval.