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Student numbers, population growth in LP-A look promising

Far from being on the verge of withering away, the Lake Park-Audubon School District appears to be well-positioned for growth into the next 30 years.

At Monday's meeting in Audubon on what to do about the district's school buildings, about 40 people were on hand to talk about demographics, population change and growth in the district. The meeting seemed to offer a good mix of "no" and "yes" voters, who have done battle in recent years on whether to build a new school.

Some "no" voters fear the area's school-age population will decline over the next few decades, which would have left the district with a new building and not enough students and state funding to successfully operate it.

But school officials don't believe that is the case, and while they weren't willing to spend the $6,000 to $9,000 needed for a demographic study, reasoning that the information wouldn't be much better than what the district could gather itself -- they presented information from the State Demographer's Office and Sperlings Best Places to show that the future looks bright for Becker County and Lake Park-Audubon.

Becker County's population is projected to grow nearly 27 percent, or about 8,500 people, by the year 2035.

And Clay County, which also holds a portion of the LP-A school District, is projected to grow about 25 percent, or about 14,000 people, according to information from the Minnesota State Demographic Center.

The number of people age 19 and under is also projected to grow. Indeed, Becker County is listed among the high-growth counties when it comes to projected population change.

From the years 2000 to 2007, Sperlings Best Places showed healthy population increases -- including populations of school-age kids -- for townships and cities in the LP-A district.

Audubon, for example, saw an 8.6 percent increase in 0- to 9-year-olds, a 6.4 percent hike in 10- to 14-year-olds and a 5.2 percent increase in 15- to 17-year-olds.

Audubon Township and the City of Lake Park saw similar increases.

Cormorant and Lake Park Township saw much slower increases in their population of people under age 18, though Cormorant had triple the overall growth rate, with a 15 percent population increase from 2000 to 2007.

Most of those new Cormorant residents don't appear to have kids, since the growth rate for those 17 and under during that same time period was in the low single digits.

There has been from $12 million to $17 million in new construction each of the past four years in the LP-A district, whose overall estimated market value has grown from $481 million in 2003 to $794 million last year -- much of that due to rising home and lakeshore values.

"The question last week was, really, will Lake Park-Audubon maintain its population or will it shrink?" said Superintendent Dale Hogie. "We can't be thinking that Detroit Lakes is going to be seeing growth and Lake Park-Audubon is not, or that Hawley is going to see growth, but LP-A is not," he said. "We're in the same position as them, and in fact in some areas we're doing a little better than our neighbors."

One man questioned why families would move to LP-A rather than elsewhere.

LP-A offers easy commuting to Fargo-Moorhead and Detroit Lakes, and less expensive housing than either of those two markets, as well as a small-school atmosphere with excellent academics and the chance to participate in sports and other extra-curricular activities that might not be available for all students at bigger schools, Hogie said. The area also has the lakes and some industry, he said.

"We have the proximity to DL, but not in DL -- in a country setting," said school board member Rick Ellsworth.

A man who lives in the Cormorant lakes area said it's not fair that he has to pay high property taxes, in part for education, on his home in Fargo and will also have to "pay the fiddler" for LP-A education on his lake home in Becker County.

"We have no control over that," said Hogie. "The Legislature has determined that property taxes are the proper way to fund education projects."

But even had the last building bond referendum passed, district property taxes would have been below the state average. "It's not like they would have skyrocketed to something unreasonable," he said. "It's not like (district spending) is spiraling out of control."

In fact, district spending has increased by just 1 percent a year the past six years. Had state funding increases averaged even 2.5 percent per year for those years, the district would now be sitting on a surplus, without having to go to voters for the $500-per-student excess operating levy that was approved several years ago.

"So we have not been extravagant at all," Hogie said. "Far from it."

LP-A will now get a 5.1 funding increase from the state over two years, following two years of "very modest increases," Hogie said.

"We have a great gift in this school," said a woman. "I know the price is high -- I live on a lake -- but we have a setting where every teacher knows every child ... research shows the more adults are involved in a child's education, the more successful that child will be."

George Kohn of Audubon had two questions for the district's architect -- why is it projected to cost so much more to fix the Audubon school's bathrooms than the bathrooms the Lake Park school, and why is it projected to cost so much to renovate the 1955 addition to the high school.

The 1955 project cost just $60,000 at the time, and now repairs to it are estimated at $600,000. "I can't conceive of that -- that just doesn't seem possible," he said.

Inflation and the higher cost of construction and materials over 50 years accounts for the $600,000 price tag, the architect said. As for the bathrooms, those costs were calculated based on square footage for gutting the rooms to the studs and putting in new piping, flooring and equipment, and bringing everything up to code.

"The toilet areas are always one of the most expensive,' he said.

LP-A essentially has no long-term debt now, and if the school bond measure had passed, "it would not have been out of this world," Hogie said. After three years the district would have dropped out of the highest level on the state average and would continue to drop as time went on and other districts built new schools.

Several apparent "no" voters in the crowd thanked the board for answering questions and providing data.

"I appreciate the fact that you brought some data to us, because before we didn't have any,' said one man.

Another thanked the board "for the first time for having an open and frank discussion -- it's long overdue," he said. "I've never seen more damage to two small communities in the last two or three years than over this issue. It's sad."

There is no bad blood between the students, at least, pointed out one woman. "The students get along fine -- there's no battle between Lake Park and Audubon students, they are all LP-A students."

"The past needs to be put aside and the two communities need to work jointly to find a solution," said Hogie.

That's why the district scheduled these meetings. The first one looked at district finances, and the third, set for 7 p.m. Aug. 6 at the Lake Park High School, will look at specific enrollment numbers and district comparisons; property tax comparisons; agreements for secondary education with another district; possible dissolution of the school district; the cost of change in educational services, and the staff will again take audience questions.