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LP-A lays out case for new school bonds

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Detroit Lakes, 56501
Detroit Lakes Minnesota 511 Washington Avenue 56501

The way the Lake Park-Audubon School Board sees it, a "yes" vote on the $26.17 million school bond measure May 8 is the only option that makes any sense.

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Sure, the district could dissolve itself and be divided among neighboring school districts, but the property taxes would be higher in Hawley and not much lower in Detroit Lakes.

And those districts might have to pass building bonds themselves to house the additional 630-some students, further raising property taxes.

There's no way to avoid being part of a school district, the state requires everyone to be in one, said Carolyn Drude, an executive vice president of Ehlers & Associates of Roseville.

Some at the meeting said kids would be in for longer bus rides if they had to travel to Detroit Lakes or Hawley, and their schooling would lose that hometown feeling.

Others said schools are the lifeblood of smaller communities, and that Lake Park and Audubon would start to fade without their schools.

Of course, the district could spend $10 million to repair its elementary school in Audubon and high school in Lake Park, but that would still leave it with buildings that are a hodge-podge of additions that will require more and more upkeep as they age.

Millions would be spent on each building just bringing heating and ventilation systems up to code.

To renovate, rather than simply repair, both existing buildings would cost millions more and have many of the same drawbacks.

Repair costs exceed the $6 million value of the buildings and equipment.

And in the end, "Classrooms that are too small will still be too small," said the project architect, Timothy Zerr of Zerr Berg Architects of Fargo.

He spoke to 50 to 75 people at the first of four public meetings scheduled by the school district on the building bond issue.

This one was at the small theater in the high school in Lake Park.

Tax worries

Those at the meeting asked lots of questions, and seemed to be about evenly divided between supporters and opponents of the building bond.

Opponents of the bond measure worried about having to cope with property taxes that would more than double the school portion of their tax bill -- adding $236 to the current $162 levy on a $100,000 home.

LP-A is not a wealthy district, and one woman pointed out that nearly a third of its students qualify for free or reduced lunch -- higher than in surrounding districts, she said.

Another woman asked what the district's plans were for operating revenue.

The current excess levy brings in about $300,000 a year. The district is running a budget surplus of about $200,000 this year, Superintendent Dale Hogie said, but the school board will have to decide in about three years whether to ask voters to keep the existing excess operating levy in place.

On the plus side, if the school bond passes and the new facilities attract new residents, taxes will go down as the district's tax base grows through new construction.

In the meantime, Hogie said property tax refunds from the state will blunt some of the pain of higher taxes.

For example, a resident who owns a $100,000 house in Audubon and earns $40,000 a year would qualify for a refund that would return $135 of the $236 tax hike for the schools.

Refunds would vary widely based on income, home value and city of residence. That same homeowner in Lake Park, for example, would not receive a refund at all. But he'd get a $147 refund if his income was $20,000 a year.

A chart is included in the eight-page informational brochure handed out at the meeting.

Some at the meeting criticized the state property tax refund, saying it could be eliminated at any time by the Legislature.

That's true, said Drude, but it was launched in 1971 as part of the "Minnesota Miracle" and there is no indication it will be abandoned anytime soon.

The Legislature is actually leaning towards more property tax relief, not less, Hogie said.

The plan

The district wants to remodel about 50,000 square feet and add 35,000 square feet of new construction to its elementary school.

It will be able to keep both its gymnasiums, which are a great asset and are in good shape, Zerr said.

"The state would reject a (new) school with two large gyms like we have now," he said. "This would be a tremendous elementary school with this configuration."

It will have a commons area to allow for high school sports crowds, an office area in front of the building to provide tighter security and a media center located front and center as students walk in the main doors. There will be room for the community education's preschool program, along with kindergarten classes and classes for the younger grades -- all new construction.

Total costs for the elementary school project, including construction and remodeling, is set at $9.31 million. That includes $544,000 for new technology and other improvements and a $426,000 contingency fund.

The new high school would sit on 53 acres of donated land and would have access Highway 10 in Lake Park.

Total cost for the 106,000-square-foot high school is set at $16.78 million, including $983,000 for technology and equipment and $1.3 million for site work -- which includes a street to Highway 10, sports fields and other outdoor amenities.

"Everything is going to fit on that site," Hogie said.

The high school will be functional and well designed, but will be a no-frills building, "not a Taj Mahal," said board member Rick Ellsworth.

Battling the rumor mill

"There isn't a swimming pool and there isn't an indoor running track," Hogie said.

Those were some of the rumors floating around prior to the last building bond election in November, he explained.

"People voted 'no' for reasons that don't exist," Hogie said. "There were too many misinformed voters -- we heard that over and over again. That gave the school board and I the indication that we probably should try the same project again."

Even this time around, there is misinformation out there, Hogie added.

"Those who say it's the most expensive project in Minnesota are wrong -- you can go to the Minnesota Department of Education Web site and see it's wrong," he said.

The LP-A district is unusual in that it has no capital improvement debt, Drude said. It plans to float a 25-year tax-free bond at 4.8 percent. That would cost about $20 million in interest over the life of the bond.

But interest will be "substantially less" if bond rates stay as low as they are now (4.29 percent) until June, she said.

Long-term interest payments always sound high, Hogie said. If you spend $1.39 a day on a bottle of Mountain Dew, for example, you will have spent $11,400 over 25 years.

Rainy days and Mondays

At any rate, there's little doubt something needs to be done about the schools.

Temperatures vary widely in the wintertime from one part of the high school to another - from the low-to-mid-60s to 90 degrees. It was 82 degrees in one classroom early Tuesday morning, Hogie said. Teachers and administrators in the hot rooms have to leave windows open all winter for temperature control.

And patching different parts of the leaky roof is an ongoing job, Hogie said.

Students performing a play recently had to think on their feet, ad-libbing it into the script, and setting out buckets and pans, when the roof started leaking during a rainy-day performance.

Informational meetings

For more information on the bond referendum, see the school district's Web site at www.lakeparkaudubon.org.

Public informational meetings are set for 7 p.m. Monday at the Cormorant Community Center, 9:30 a.m. on Saturday, April 28, at the South Gym in Audubon, and 7 p.m. April 30 at Lake Eunice Town Hall.

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