This school bond request had flaws, but voters better support a more reasonable one
It’s tempting to look at last week’s $188 million school facilities bond referendum as a waste of time and money. School district voters in 2010 soundly rejected a $24 million facilities bond. The voting climate was better this time around, and the scope of this year’s request gave it prominence, but it was a stretch to think the same base would swing enough to approve the largest school referendum in state history.
Yet in the long run, another crushing defeat may prove to be a useful reality check for ISD 831.
After the comparatively modest proposal in 2010, the school district went all in this time. Plans included improvements to each district school and reorganizing of secondary schooling into a 7-12 campus featuring an expanded high school and Century Junior High.
The district’s all-or-nothing approach could have paid off by covering its needs for decades. But the proposal’s unlikeliness of success begs the question: Why shoot for the moon?
This was a golden opportunity for the district. Referendums across the state have been passing with ease of late, including Princeton’s $30 million one held on the same day as Forest Lake’s. The economy is recovering, while interest rates and construction costs make it a prime time to build.
Referendums don’t come along every day. Regardless of whether the 30-year bill would have been manageable for taxpayers, this was too big of an opportunity to risk by asking for such an eye-popping amount.
The volunteers of the facilities task force gave generously of their time and crafted an innovative plan. They also recommended the bond request not exceed $130 million. When costs came in much higher than that, the School Board and district officials kept the proposed project intact, even when the price tag reached $176 million.
A step was missed here. The proposal’s feasibility should have been accounted for. Because it wasn’t, it’s hard to blame anyone for voting no.
The district faced a tall task from the start, considering the area’s heavy conservative leaning and several of its recent actions that irked those paying attention. The district in November paid $3.3 million for the struggling FLAAA Sports Center in a lease purchase agreement that did not require the public’s support. Some voters were bothered that this referendum was held via special election in May rather than with the general election in November. Others took issue with the asking amount being $12 million higher than the proposed project cost, even though the difference simply would have been for refinancing existing debt and would not have added to taxes.
Many who voted no seemed jaded and said they did not want to entrust the district with so much money.
But even some who typically support the district were put in position to hesitate. It was hard to come to grips with the largest such request in state history not leading to the construction of even one new facility. The price point made it a hard proposal to get behind, even for those who desperately wanted to do so.
However, all may not be for naught. The referendum got the ball rolling on discussions that are continuing in the wake of the vote. (See the Times’ website or Facebook page for examples.) Many of those who opposed last week’s request say they are ready to support a more measured one. That’s encouraging to hear, though the starkness of the district’s facility needs leaves them little to hide behind.
Voters will likely be mulling another bond request soon, perhaps as soon as November, when three of the School Board’s seven seats will be up in the general election. Whenever it comes, it’s hard to imagine the next proposal will be as all-encompassing.
Then things will get really interesting. This district seems to have a larger-than-average share of folks who wouldn’t cough up a dime for the most sensible and needed plan in the world. That leaves the school district a small margin of error, and it turns the spotlight on the recent “no” voters who claim they will consider a more moderate proposal.
If a reasonable plan comes forth and these residents nitpick it or get cold feet in the voting booth, they would set the community even further behind and expose their motives as selfish rather than thrifty.
Many residents say they don’t want Forest Lake to be swallowed into the metro. That’s fine. It’s a stand-alone community, and that’s more good than bad. But listen up: Like it or not, growth is coming to the area, times are changing, and it’s not like this is Rush City. One can drive from Broadway Avenue to White Bear Lake as quickly as it takes to get to parts of North Shore Trail.
This isn’t about progress or trying to keep up with the Centennial School Districts of the world. This is about nuts-and-bolts building maintenance and providing our students – yes, “our” students – with facilities that at the very least aren’t the butt of jokes that contribute to a very real culture of wanting to “get out” as soon as possible.
It’s time for people on both sides of this issue to get real. Each team has erred: voters in slamming a modest request for clearly needed upgrades in 2010, and district officials for in turn going to the other extreme this spring.
Both sides have shown their hand. Now it’s time for the real negotiating to begin.
-Clint Riese is editor of the Forest Lake Times.