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LP-A faces fifth vote on funding

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news Detroit Lakes, 56501
Detroit Lakes Minnesota 511 Washington Avenue 56501

Lake Park-Audubon might face its fifth bond referendum in roughly three years this fall - another crack at enlisting a deeply divided community to help fund a major school facility overhaul.

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A tentative plan the school administration has put forth shaves off close to $7 million from its most recent proposal, a $25.8 million bond voters rejected in December. School leaders say the possible plan is an imperfect solution they hope will win over residents with concerns about high renovation costs.

"We're still in the exploratory phase," Superintendent Dale Hogie said. "We want to update people and let them know what we're looking at."

But opponents of the previous four proposals remain skeptical of school leaders' plans. They question why officials only acknowledge the existence of cheaper alternatives after four "no" votes and remain steadfast in opposing major renovation in the face of declining enrollment.

If the new proposal lands on the fall ballot, the two sides appear poised for another intense standoff. Few residents venture a guess on whether the cost cut might melt the narrow margin by which proposals most recently failed.

The district first asked taxpayers for help in 2005, citing myriad space, heating, ventilation, plumbing and access to technology issues in the aging schools. Its December proposal called for a new secondary school in Lake Park and new construction at the Audubon elementary.

This latest proposal would focus renovation efforts on the Lake Park site, spending about $2 million on fixing urgent heating and ventilation problems in Audubon and razing its 1920s section. Grades five and six would then move to the secondary building, which would score major repairs and new construction that would expand it by 40,000 square feet.

By preliminary assessments, the entire project would cost $16.9 million - unless the district decided to build a new secondary school on donated land on the western edge of town for only $200,000 more, by district estimates.

Earlier this week, the district hosted John Ryberg of the Minnesota Department of Education's financial management section, who assured residents the district's two facilities are long overdue for a makeover.

"We want to cast aside that suspicion and that doubt that we're trying to manipulate and sway people to get what we want," Hogie said.

But for at least some opponents of previous plans, who peppered Ryberg with questions at a Tuesday public forum, doubts persist.

"What's very hard to understand is the superintendent and his board previously stated that all conceivable options had been explored," said Audubon resident George W. Kohn. "He then comes up with this option."

He also said the plan unfairly favors Lake Park over Audubon. The two districts underwent an uneasy consolidation in the late 1990s, only after Audubon voters twice rejected the idea at previous elections.

Some opponents of major renovation think the district should consider consolidation with neighboring districts in the face of declining enrollment. Supporters counter that LP-A taxpayers will end up funding school expansions in adjacent communities - and losing some sense of identity.

Hogie said the district hasn't calculated how the new proposal will affect taxes. Last December's plan would have raised taxes on a $100,000 home by $217 a year, a hike opponents cautioned would put a squeeze on fixed-income retired residents.

For School Board Chairwoman Vicky Grondahl, the instant outcry against the cheaper proposal suggests that strong renovation opponents will only be satisfied by inaction. She noted previous plans dedicated plentiful dollars to Audubon: "Do you want to lower the price, or do you want absolute equity between the two towns? Which do you want?"

Grondahl has "very mixed feelings" about the tentative plan and fears some district supporters might reject it because it doesn't go far enough in addressing the Audubon site's needs.

"I'm not crazy about this plan by any means," said Kim Holloway-Somerville, president of the district's PTSO, Lake Park vice mayor and outspoken supporter of the rejected proposals. She said if the proposal lands on the ballot, she and fellow renovation supporters will likely vote yes, but "there will be some reservations. It won't be a happy 'yes' vote."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mila Koumpilova at (701) 241-5529

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