Two scenarios for facilities bond
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.
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.
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.”