Much riding on outcome of referendum

Two scenarios for facilities bond

Mary Bailey
Community Editor

When ISD 831 taxpayers vote on the $176 million facilities bond on May 20, the result will be either a four-year spurt of construction or a list of uncompleted projects.

The proposal goes beyond maintenance and repair. Rethinking where secondary school students attend, closing an aging building and repurposing another, and adding secure entrances are major changes.

But a large part of the proposal is simply fixing things that are broken or worn out. If voters reject the package, maintenance issues will still need to be addressed.

This article, fourth in a series, looks at what will happen if the referendum succeeds and explores the district’s options if it is defeated.

Success

If the referendum passes, between 2015 and 2018 every district building will undergo change.

Forest Lake High School, built in 1972, would be expanded to accommodate ninth grade. 

New classrooms would be added on the east, west and south, resulting in modern science labs and industrial arts facilities. 

The music area would be remodeled, and the performing arts center would get new seats and upgraded lighting and sound systems. 

Skylights would be added to improve lighting in the media center, and the food service area would be remodeled.

The north side would be rebuilt to create a secure front entrance, preventing visitors from entering the hallways without permission.

Because the current district office would be given a new use as staff development headquarters, new offices would be built on the north side of the school for the superintendent and directors. 

South of the field house, a six-court gymnasium with locker rooms would be added.

Aging roofs and leaking mortar would be replaced, heating, ventilation and air conditioning equipment modernized and electrical service upgraded. Bathrooms would be renovated, windows and doors replaced. There would be new floors, ceilings and paint.

Outdoor facilities would include a new track, improved football stadium and rebuilt tennis courts. Parking lots and access roads would be expanded and improved.

A new well would be drilled for irrigating fields. Landscaping improvements, stormwater management and wetland mitigation are also planned.

Estimated cost for the high school is $76 million.

Century Junior High would lose its ninth-graders and become the district’s only junior high. So this building, built in 2000 and the newest in the district, would be expanded to accommodate all seventh- and eighth-graders.

A fourth classroom wing would be added on the north. New science, consumer science and industrial arts classrooms would be built.

A secure front entrance to restrict visitors would be built on the west.

On the south, a major expansion would house the district’s aquatic center and parking lot. A multipurpose room with stage and bleachers would be used for physical education, performances and classroom activities. This new wing would also have a weight room.

Classrooms would get air conditioning, the food service area would be renovated, and windows and doors would be replaced.

New tennis courts, irrigation, landscaping and walking paths would add to the outdoor sports amenities.

Expanding and upgrading Century is expected to cost $21.6 million.

Southwest Junior High, built in 1964, would no longer be a junior high, having lost all its current functions.

It would be home to early childhood programs, the Montessori elementary and the Area Learning Center, an alternative school for students in grades six to 12. These are currently part of the Central Learning Center, which would be demolished if the bond passes.

Southwest would be remodeled to create a separate parking lot and secure entrance for each program. An outdoor nature area would be built.

Heating, ventilation and air conditioning, bathrooms, floors and ceilings would be improved. Roofs and windows would be replaced. 

The estimated cost to renovate Southwest is $5 million.

The Central Learning Center has an interesting past, but its story will end if the referendum passes. The facilities task force concluded that the building has been used far beyond its expected lifespan and drains funds from other programs.

The original building was added to over the years, and then torn down, leaving just the additions. Five additions have been added and remodeled over the years.

In the 1990s it was Central Junior High, and when ISD 831 had a gifted program, elementary students from across the district were bused there for accelerated math classes.

When Century was built, specialized programs that had used rented space were brought to the renamed building. The 2012-2013 facilities task force decided the patched-together jumble of pieces was ineffective and the building should be torn down.

“The building got in the way of running the programs,” according to Lee Meyer, the architect in charge of the proposed project.

It may cost more to remove the building than the district can recoup by selling the land.

At all elementary schools, deferred maintenance will be addressed if voters say yes. 

In addition to the Montessori school, which draws students from across the district, ISD 831 has seven neighborhood elementary schools. Forest View (built in 1967) holds grades K-3 and Forest Lake (1957) holds grades 4-6 on Fourth Street Southwest in Forest Lake. 

The others are K-6 schools in Lino Lakes (1957), Linwood (1961), Scandia (1962), Columbus (1975) and Wyoming (1989). 

The facilities task force recommended keeping all neighborhood elementary schools. Superintendent Linda Madsen said the decision to keep the elementary school in each community is key, even though it gets less attention than the changes at the secondary level.

“The task force considered tearing down every building but Century,” she said. “But they came to the conclusion that we want the elementary schools to stay where they are, and we want to keep them K-6. They made a very conscious decision to keep those seven schools in those communities.”

Each building would get a new, secure front entrance. Lino Lakes and Columbus, built with an “open air” format, would get permanent walls. Heating systems, windows, doors and roofs would be replaced at all schools.

Forest Lake Elementary, which gets heat from the Central Learning Center, would gain a boiler room. Drainage issues at Columbus would be addressed. 

With lighting, intercom systems, sidewalks, drinking fountains and athletic field irrigation, the total for all elementary schools would be $43.3 million.

Failure

Taxpayers pay to build school facilities and to keep them in good condition. Minnesota law requires voter approval before issuing new bonds for capital improvements.

When staff can’t convince voters to approve a tax increase to borrow money for upgrades and repairs, facilities can get run-down over time. What else can be done?

First, the district can try a new referendum. 

“You can go back to voters as often as you want,” Business Director Larry Martini said. 

Since approving a $47 million bonding proposal to build Century Junior High and update other facilities in 1999, ISD 831 voters have been reluctant to vote yes. The $24 million facilities bond proposed in 2010, after a previous task force found $100 million in maintenance issues, was defeated.

When an operating levy referendum failed that year, the district reduced the amount, reduced the term and went back to the voters. In 2011 the new proposal was approved.

A second idea, often mentioned by district staff, is the Alternative Facilities Program. Minnesota law gives bigger school districts with older buildings the ability to raise property taxes without voter approval to fund deferred maintenance.

School districts with more than 1.8 million square feet and average building age 15 years, or 1.3 million square feet and average building age 35 years, can submit a maintenance plan for approval by the Minnesota Department of Education and gain access to a reliable revenue stream to address building maintenance.

In addition to qualifying districts, others have been added to the list by special legislation. Stillwater, North St. Paul and White Bear Lake districts were “grandfathered in.” 

The result is a fiscal disparity between the 25 districts that can raise facilities funds without voter approval (spending on average $2.79 per square foot) and the rest, who must pass a referendum or use general fund dollars (spending on average 58 cents per square foot). 

This is why maintenance projects can be put off so long, Meyer said. When repairs come out of the general fund, he said, schools have to choose between fixing a motor or hiring another kindergarten teacher. 

“Deferred maintenance is not funded to the level needed,” he said.

District 39 Sen. Karin Housley, R-St. Mary’s Point, tried but was unsuccessful in adding Forest Lake to the list of districts qualifying for alternative facilities funding.

“ISD 831 probably won’t be grandfathered in,” Martini said at an April 10 school board committee meeting. “Nothing’s happening.”

He added, “The reason we’re going after the large bond project is pretty much because we’re out a solution like that.”

Martini did offer other ideas. If the referendum fails, he said, the district has tools available.

Lease levy is one. An area that is less than 20 percent of an existing building can be added, subject to review by the Department of Education. A bank holds the lease.

“That’s what we do for STEP,” the adult education program, he said.

A second tool is tax abatement. Without voter approval, school districts can grant abatements of the taxes they impose for 15 years, issuing bonds to be paid back with the abatements. Abatement bonds are not subject to debt limits. 

This approach would create new funding for community use items such as parking lots.

ISD 831 tried this approach to buy the FLAAA Sports Center, but the Department of Education issued a negative review and comment, saying voter approval would be required. The Sports Center was later purchased by the school district for $3.3 million using lease-purchase financing, with no voter input.

Last July ISD 593 in Crookston pursued abatement bonding to repair a swimming pool and repave a parking lot. The Department of Education approved the parking lot but said the pool would require voter approval.

“So if we have parking lot needs, we have a tool,” Martini concluded.

ISD 831 successfully raised $3 million from local property taxes without voter approval to upgrade air quality at the high school. The Health and Safety money was raised over two years, with construction during the summers of 2013 and 2014. 

Since much of the replacement cost proposed for elementary schools involves heating, ventilation and air conditioning, could the district use this funding mechanism to upgrade air quality at elementary schools?

“Yes and no,” Martini said. “In order to perform indoor air quality upgrades, like we did at the high school, the Minnesota Department of Education reviews projects and will approve them if the amount of fresh air per occupant is below a certain threshold, and if after the project the amount will exceed that threshold. Health and Safety dollars can be used to perform MDE-approved projects that will meet the threshold of 15 cubic feet per minute of fresh air per occupant. Not all schools will qualify, and not all components, such as boilers, will qualify.”

  • ForestLakeResident

    The residents of Forest Lake need to pass this referendum. Forest Lake High School is a joke and was a dump when I went there 20 years ago. The only decent school in Forest Lake in Century Junior High. Our kids deserve schools that they can be proud to attend and the parents should be embarrased if they don’t pass this bill. I really don’t want to pay higher taxes but our schools need an upgrade and our kids need better schools.

    • JC1JS2 .

      First thing I noticed about the high school was the horrible parking lot and the log jams when school lets out. Also the bleachers for the football games have the home team getting blinded by the sun until it finally sets while the visitors have the sun at their back, who designed that? With 10 cities being served by 1 high school you would think it would be priority for this school to be a focal point of the city instead of such an afterthought.

    • http://www.EricLangness.com/ Eric Langness

      So do you think that putting windows in the roof of the media center and building a new administration headquarters will do that? Is this really the best use of tax dollars?

      • ForestLakeResident

        Is there anything you approve of in Forest Lake, oh yes I remember adding another plow truck. You disapprove of the dog park, even though that is being built with donated money. You disapprove of the new city building and I’m sure you disapprove of making the schools better. Forest Lake is a joke of a town, there is no entertainment, no shopping and nothing to attract people. Better schools could bring more residents to Forest Lake but doing nothing will almost guarentee that people with kids do not come to Forest Lake.

        • http://www.EricLangness.com/ Eric Langness

          FLR –

          The dog park is not being fully paid for by donated money. There is the capitol costs of the land and ongoing costs for maintenance that will be far more than the generous donations. I’ve also not taken a position on having a dog park in Forest Lake but rather criticized some of the choices made in a particular plan.

          I have publicly disapproved of the methods the city council and mayor used to finance the new building. I’ve also publicly stated that parts of it are ugly, such as the giant ‘artwork’ on the front of it. Beyond that, I’ve actually said that certain city facilities are in need to be upgraded. For what it matters, should you choose to look I was not an author or signer on the petition against it.

          It’s sad you find Forest Lake to be a ‘joke of a town’. I find it to be a relatively nice place to live. I suggest that if it’s such a joke you move.

          You say there is ‘no entertainment’ but must never have been to Lakeside Park or some of the events on the lake/beachfront there such as Arts in the Park, boat races or snowmobile races. What about the 4th of July celebrations? How about the extensive nature and beautiful views all over? I love this town!

          You say there is ‘no shopping’ and in part this may have been solved if the city didn’t tear down the highest paying property tax property, Northland Mall, to build it’s dream city hall complex.

          Better schools. Finally we agree. We do need better schools. I suspect we disagree that it requires constantly more funding for less students…

          Facts help us all. If you want to make accusations about me, please be factual.

          • PTA Mom

            You really are so much more intelligent then we could ever imagine. I just wish somehow we could see into your world and at least, at a minimum, understand where you’re coming from? Seems you befuddle more then promote sound understanding. Maybe it’s that smart alecky lippy tone of your “I’m not taken a position” or how you were misquoted. Eric, seriously, you appear to be nothing more then a jaded individual still mad, jaded over your past censure by the Forest Lake school board. As a PTA mom I certainly understand that better then anyone.

            We, the community accept you Eric as we would anyone. All we ask in return is you be just as accepting and open to others who don’t share your narrow minded abstract Republican ideas.

          • http://www.EricLangness.com/ Eric Langness

            My intelligence granted me an opportunity to start college full-time at age 15 (St Thomas University) and was a college instructor at age 24. So, if you’re being sarcastic in your words sadly you’re mistaken.

            Transparency and honesty in politics is more important than ‘tone’ to me. Our school district is not giving the full picture of the bonds and those going door-to-door are even more slanted.

            I was censured for seconding a motion for discussion that was ultimately dropped before being voted on. It was with regard to student safety concerns and I wouldn’t change any of my actions. Censure in this case, as it generally is, is a political slap on the wrist, not a legal action with consequences. Frankly, I was over it a long time ago.

            My vision for our children being able to afford things and not be strung with the debts of our local, state and federal government doesn’t mean I hate children as so many in your viewpoint like to project. When will you accept that the vision of myself and others is one of caring for the children as well? Although, I feel your view is misguided, I don’t imply that you’re against the children.

          • PTA Mom

            Whatever you say…kumbaya

          • http://www.EricLangness.com/ Eric Langness

            Facts are useful. Try using them. Sadly when you’re presented with them you do us all a disservice and demonstrate your ignorance.

          • PTA Mom

            You’re OK Eric but apparently I’m not. Socialization or lack there of. Could that be the problem here?

  • Mustang

    Amen Forest Lake Resident! Please, Vote Yes, our kids deserve a healthy, decent environment to learn in. My last child graduates this year and will not benefit form any of this, but I am voting Yes for the community and all the next generations. This has to happen. I have seen all of the schools in this District over the past 20 years at one time or another, and they really need the improvements. PLEASE, PLEASE, VOTE YES on MAY 20, 2014!

  • JC1JS2 .

    Funny when each kids(parents) have to pay $250 a year for the “privilege” to park at the high school which has the worst parking lot I’ve ever encountered (when it rains the NW end becomes a literal pond and cars are submerged) and is full of potholes THAT money is NEVER used to improve the asphalt and drainage problems. Also this district serves 10 cities and has an old community pool that is out of compliance for safe diving, and the ventilation is non-existent, and the over-use of pool chemicals have caused skin reactions and at the lip of the pool it can make you pass out from toxic fumes, so YES this district needs a new state of the art pool with ozone style non-chlorine filtration, separate diving pool and separate lap pool and separate children’s pool so that lap swimming isn’t done in the same pool some infant pooped in. The pool upgrade was supposed to happen with the new athletic center at the edge of town, but instead they built a bunch of soccer and baseball fields and a hockey arena and inconveniently ran out of money to built a quality pool for the 10 cities this district serves. Will I vote yes for this referendum, yes, but will the money actually be used wisely and where it is needed most….not so sure, I haven’t seen fiscal responsibility so far…

    • http://www.EricLangness.com/ Eric Langness

      So, you think building a skylight in a media center that will be less energy efficient and potentially cause future leaks is a wise use of money? How will this benefit education of kids? This is just one example of many in the laundry list of the most expensive bond in Minnesota history statewide.

  • Randall J.

    Thanks PTA mom for taking on Eric. Keep up the good fight come election time this fall when he and his posse such as D.T., J.F., S.S., E.H., B.W., M.F., and Mr. and Mrs D & J M., either run or pay for the likes of C.P., E.L., E.E. etc to run to be their pawns :)

    • PTA Mom

      Eric Langness is un-electable due to comments he makes here and he’s made elsewhere. For him the hiding-behind-the-keyboard is his only forum. It’s too bad in that he should have been on a city committee or even the city council if he feels so, seemingly, vehemently incensed by so much which others see as a positive.

      • http://www.EricLangness.com/ Eric Langness

        I’m hardly ‘hiding’ as you so claim. I openly and transparently use my own name on the forum and everywhere else. That is the honestly I wish all our local officials used. You might be hiding your name, but I’m not.

        I’ve been on numerous committees at the local city, public schools, metropolitan area, statewide boards and so on. I’ve been elected before as well, so your statement that I’m ‘un-electable’ is just as false.

        Move on to facts as I’ve pointed out you should have done a long time ago. Try using them, they help us all.

    • http://www.EricLangness.com/ Eric Langness

      I’ve said as early as a year ago that I have no plans to run.

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