Superintendent, School Board respond to election results

Facilities bond voted down by wide margin

Mary Bailey
Community Editor

NEW fl logoForest Lake Area Schools Superintendent Linda Madsen is disappointed that the district’s $188 million facilities bond proposal failed to get voter approval last Tuesday.

“People worked extremely hard,” she said.

She listed the task force, the Vote Yes for Kids committee, the video and website created so voters would be well-informed.

“A lot of effort and hard work were put out. We really tried to look at ways to present the information. Of course it’s disappointing.”

While the official election results will be canvassed at the May 29 School Board meeting, she said, the discussions about what to do next will probably begin at the June 19 meeting.

Is there a chance of another vote in November?

“I have no idea,” she said.

Three-fifths of the ISD 831 residents who showed up to vote said no.

Of the 29,247 registered voters in the school district, 7,521 voted. Of those, 3,001 voted for the proposal and 4,520 against.

The school facilities bond was the only question on the ballot for this special election.

Madsen said the people involved did what was best for students and communicated their ideas well.

“It’s disappointing that people didn’t move ahead with that,” she said.

School Board members echoed Madsen’s thoughts.

“A loss like this locks you in place for a time,” Board President Rob Rapheal said. “We can’t be stuck in place. We need to keep moving forward.”

Raphael, who has served on the board through two gap analyses over four years, expressed frustration. But he was also optimistic that the school district would succeed eventually.

“We’ve seen that over the years: There’s resistance, and then we get a new high school. There’s resistance, and then we get a new junior high.”

The frustration comes, he said, when he thinks of the students.

“I see how hard kids are working in school. I want our buildings, and what we do as parents, to match what the kids are trying to do. They’re preparing for something bigger. Our buildings should match that and encourage it.”

In the largest school facilities bond ever put before a Minnesota community, voters were asked to approve funds for several categories: to update run-down buildings and aging equipment, to upgrade athletic facilities, to create a single junior high for grades seven and eight, to expand the high school to include grades nine through 12, to tear down an old school and remodel another to receive its programs, and to secure entrances at all school buildings.

Might the bond have passed if residents could have voted separately on each part?

“I don’t think so,” Raphael said. One problem with that approach is the Central Learning Center, which houses four different programs for four different age groups.

“In order to get security right, we need to move the programs to Southwest,” he said.

And it would be a mistake to separate buildings from athletic facilities, he added.

“Sports are a critical part of the educational experience,” he said.

“There were parts that appealed to a lot of people,” he said. “I think people just didn’t get out and vote.”

After the 2010 gap analysis found $100 million in needs, the district pared the list, asking voters for a $24 million bond in 2010. Voters said no.

“There are a lot of people in the community who just vote no,” Raphael said. “When the amount was $24 million, they said no. When the vote was to redo the levy, they said no. For $176 million, they said no. You’re just not going to convince these people.”

The $24 million bond proposal that failed in 2010 did not include reorganizing the secondary schools or closing the Central Learning Center.

Instead, it focused on heating/cooling, energy and security, Raphael said. Changing the school entrances so that visitors cannot access the halls, part of the May 20 bond proposal, was also included in 2010.

“That was before Sandy Hook and some of the other big tragedies,” Raphael said. “That got creamed.”

But he’s not ready to give up on secure entrances. “If something happened, it would be unconscionable if I hadn’t done everything I could to improve security.”

What should be the next step for the district?

“Nothing has changed,” Raphael said. “We still have buildings that need repair, buildings that aren’t secure, athletic facilities that are second-rate at best.”

Raphael said he, the superintendent and board members must figure out how to get this done.

“It’s difficult after a big defeat to brush yourself off and get back in the ring,” he said. But in 10 years, what he wants is not for things to be falling apart even more but for things to be fixed so the district will be “in a good place.”

Board Member Dan Kieger remains committed to the cause but has not decided how the board should proceed.

“We as a board think it’s needed,” he said. “We’re not asking for extremes: It’s a lot, but it’s all needs, for kids to get a good education.”

Kieger said the news of defeat was heartbreaking after all the time and energy spent on the proposal.

The school district buildings, many of them built in the 1950s and 1960s, need more security, new technology and better air quality, Kieger said.

“Right now, we need to stand back a few days before we start thinking: Should we try for a bond again, or make cuts? We try to keep class size down,” he said.

Board Member Karen Morehead said the board did the job it was elected to do: taking care of students and buildings.

“We’re all devastated now,” she said. “The citizens wanted the opportunity to vote, but when the number is that great, it’s hard for them to get their heads around it.”

Some people in the community have criticized the decision to hold the election in May, when fewer voters turn out, but Morehead defended it.

With the school facilities bond the only question on the ballet, she said, voters could focus on that.

“It would be a lot less transparent if you hid it in November with a lot of political stuff,” she said.

Morehead also objected strongly to the reuse of anti-levy signs in people’s yards.

“It wasn’t even a levy. It was a bond issue,” she said.

Board Member Gail Theisen said she was very surprised that the bond was defeated.

“In my door knocking, I heard from so many positive parents who were really inspired by what the task force brought forward,” she said. “The community still does want these improvements.”

The comprehensive nature of the bond proposal was an asset, not a liability, in the mind of Board Member Kathy Bystrom.

“It fixed everything once and for all,” she said. “It got it done. We weren’t needing to come back again and again.”

She believes that in this election voters were not rejecting all new taxes. Instead, they disagreed with the scope of the proposal.

“Clearly, the voters took a look at it and thought it was a little excessive, too much all at once,” she said. “This time, it was, ‘Give me something I can live with.’”

Bystrom said the board will solicit input from voters and probably be back soon with another bond proposal.

“I don’t think we can delay,” she said. “We know the need is there.”

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

    It appears members of our school board are delusional or are far out of touch from the public. The bond THEY put forward was not just ‘needs’ but wants. Needs are security as they talk about but skylights in media centers are not needs. New administrative offices are wants, not needs. State of the art sports facilities are wants, not needs. On one hand they complain about ‘low voter turnout’ when in fact for a May election this was high turnout. If they want high turnout, put it on the ballot in November, when elections should be held! They clearly are not listening to the public and this is why they put forward the most expensive bond in statewide history and are surprised when it fails in what arguably is a fiscally conservative community.

  • Sally Swanson

    I am so looking forward to the day that you are elected again so that you can lead us into the light. You may recall that the 2010 Bond did not pass either. So, in your infinite wisdom, please tell us what the Voters want. You, apparently know the best. Again, a skylight in a dismal, dreary media center that is woefully out of date, doesn’t seem like a major extravagance. I am all for getting the basics done, but FL residents did not pass that either.

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

      Sally – I don’t plan to run again. Skylights are in most peoples eyes an extravagance.

      • DJL

        In some cases a skylight is cheaper than installing light fixtures and paying for electricity.

        The opposition to refinancing the existing debt at a lower interest rate by the so-called “fiscal responsibility” crowd was the tip-off to me that they just wanted a reason to vote no.

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

          DJL – Debt can be refinanced without running an additional bond. It would be foolish of the district administration / board to not do that if it truly saved money. This action alone would not need to go to a ballot.

    • Ash Lambert

      “So, in your infinite wisdom, please tell us what the Voters want”.

      Nice condescending attack of Eric. As for the voters, the issue at hand…clearly they value fiscal responsibility, something the school board has struggled with. The vote didn’t lose by a small margin, Sally – it got destroyed. The citizens of the area responded as they saw fit.

      By itself, a skylight in a media center may not seem like an extravagance, but all those things added up become unnecessary. And it’s hard to trust the school board what-with this bond slowly growing in number all the way up to nearly 200 million dollars, and their past incompetency does not bode well for their credibility either.

  • Erich Kertzscher

    Bottom line is I did not want my taxes going up over $500.00 as it appeared that the profile of $200.00 a year was not valid per Clint Riese’s article prior to the election. And that was for just a $200,000 home.
    If the county or city bumped up our taxes that much, a rebellion would ensue. The school needs to run their business like all other businesses do. Manage their budget they have. Fix what needs fixing using the budget they have. Prioritize and spread out the work instead of one swift swoop. New stuff like a football field and pool are a hard sell in a world of work with what you have. The upgrade to a football field and some sporting facilities just didn’t fit the priority level in my mind . It’s grass and a couple end zone posts and it’s at a High School. How many games are played a year for the cost? What’s the financial gain received from this? If there is no financial gain/profit then it’s off the list. The sales pitch just did not work and having a bond “going for broke” today will not work. I work hard for my dimes and do not see pay increases coming my way relative to costs of living going up. I can use the monies better within my household budget. I may be wrong and may not have the whole picture in front of me but any knee jerk reaction to such a drastic increase is to say no, especially when it comes to my household budget.

  • http://www.jackkempfoundation.org/ John Guymon

    Without compassion and tolerance, be it liberal or conservative, how can any fruitful dialogue even begin .

  • Guest

    The reality is the Forest Lake School District isn’t even up to the state average when it comes to funding. With that said my kids will never set foot in a Forest Lake School. Just like the town itself…everything about Forest Lake is below average, when the city has the potential to be great.

  • Foodonastick

    Ah yes, just the bare minimums when it comes to educating our children, never mind the our children are the future

    If the US is to continue to lead the world, education needs to be a priority; 2nd class schools and short sighted people are why our educational standing compared to the rest of the world has declined. Don’t plan for the future, live foe today

    Mr. Langness, I seem to recall you came in 5th in a 5 person school board election last time you ran

    But yet you say the elected school board is delusional

    That’s a good one; you should be a writer on SNL

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