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If at first you don't succeed...

The Lake Park-Audubon School Board will give district residents another chance to approve a facilities plan that was shot down by voters in November.

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On Monday, the board unanimously agreed to set a building bond election May 8 for the $26.2 million project.

If approved, a new grades 7-12 building will be built in Lake Park, and the elementary school in Audubon will receive a renovation that includes a combination of remodeling and new construction.

The school district currently operates a K-6 school in Audubon and a 7-12 school in Lake Park for about 640 students.

The district is facing projected enrollment growth in old buildings that are in need of major repairs and are at 100 percent capacity.

The school district's architectural firm, Zerr Berg Architects of Fargo, estimated prior to the November vote a K-6 facility would cost a little more than $9.9 million, including a combination of new and remodeled construction.

The firm projected a new 7-12 facility would cost about $16.1 million. The costs have risen since then because of inflation, including higher costs for winter construction. The district will save about $100,000 if the measure is approved in May rather than the coming November, according to Superintendent Dale Hogie.

The board put the issue up for a vote again in part because board members talked to a lot of people after the last vote who didn't seem to fully understand the issue.

For instance, Hogie said, many people did not know that if renovation costs exceeds 60 percent of the cost of new construction, the state has a tendency to deny permission for the project. And some were not aware that the board has looked at renovating the high school -- it was one of 11 options studied in depth, Hogie said.

"The board and I feel this is best option for district taxpayers," he said in an interview. "Renovation is a shortsighted solution, it provides no room for growth, and costs are extreme.. The board felt that a better campaign of providing information to our public would help them realize this is the best option."

The Loren Jetvig offer of free land in Lake Park for the new high school is still on table, but the land remains on the market.

The May vote will be the third in two years. District residents last December voted down a new $34.3 million school that would have housed preschool through 12th-grade students.

The school district switched architects and presented a less-expensive, $24.7 million plan in November. It failed by just over 200 votes, 1,330 "no" votes to 1,126 "yes" votes.

The percentage of "yes" voters increased about 10 percent over the district's first attempt in 2005.

At the meeting Monday, the board considered an offer from Detroit Lakes business owner Denny Meyer to sell the Country Furniture building on 13 acres in Lake Park for conversion into an elementary school.

The property is valued at about $6 million, but the district figured a sale price of $4 million and still couldn't make the numbers work.

Cost estimates for turning the Country Furniture building into an elementary school (there is not enough land there to meet state requirements for a high school), and building a new high school in Audubon range from $31.9 million to $26.3 million, according to Hogie.

"This pretty much rules it out as anything that can even be considered," Hogie said.

"I don't think it's feasible from any perspective," agreed school board member Rick Ellsworth.

"We also talked about the limitations of that site -- right off the highway (10) there's a lot of traffic on (County Road) 5, it's right across from the liquor store," said board member Vicky Grondahl.

In other action the board:

Set the 2007 levy at $745,000, a decrease of about $94,000 from this year's levy.

Heard a report from Hogie about the district's shrinking cash reserves, which went from $1.15 million in 1999 to $320,000 this fiscal year.

Hogie presented several charts that showed that, all other things being equal, the district would not be in a cash crunch, and in fact would have substantial surplus, if state funding had kept up with inflation.

"Board members have been very frugal," Hogie said. "Fund balances have gone down, but you chose to maintain programs rather than cut. District spending has increased just 1 percent annually, he said. Your increases are substantially under what inflation was -- you're about a third of what overall inflation was ... Had the school district had an annual 2.5 percent increase (in state funding) since 1999, you would not have had to deficit spend."

"The sum total of what these charts tell us is these funding problems have been generated for us down in Minneapolis," Ellsworth said.

"During that period of time we've had to change our curriculum, we had to buy new textbooks," Hogie added.

"Push comes to shove, we cannot continue to run the schools year after year after year without increases or negligible increases -- there's such a thing as inflation," said board member Rick Olson.

Part of the increased state "aid" for this year consists of allowing district to raise their levies, Grondahl noted.

"The public says we are raising their property levies ... the legislation allows districts to increase property taxes in lieu of state increases," she said.

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