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Strong feelings on both sides at LP-A meeting

What should Lake Park-Audubon do about its aging school buildings?

There were strong feelings on both sides of the issue Monday, as 50-75 people packed the small auditorium at Lake Park High School.

Superintendent Dale Hogie talked about the most current preschooler census numbers for the district, answered questions, and explored options that included dissolving the school district, or contracting with a neighboring district for services.

State Sen. Rod Skoe and State Rep. Paul Marquart, DFLers who represent portions of the LP-A district, said the state has made things more difficult with its tax policy of recent years, and they talked about how they'd like to change that -- and how new schools impacted their home towns of Clearbrook and Dilworth.

Preschool census data from 1999 to 2006 show a steady increase in kids age 0 to 4 in the LP-A district, from 247 such children in 1999 to 295 in 2006. The census is conducted by former school board member Art Dux, who uses a variety of sources to compile his data.

Because of open-enrollment out of the district, however, student numbers have fallen -- from 691 kids enrolled in 1999 to 640 students last year.

It's a fairly recent trend. The district enjoyed a fairly stable net loss of 70-80 students a year from the 1999-2000 school year to the 2003-04 year.

In 2000-01, for example, 46 students from other districts open-enrolled into LP-A -- from DL, Hawley and Pelican Rapids, mostly -- and 120 students that live in the LP-A district open-enrolled out, mostly to Hawley or Detroit Lakes, with a few going to Ulen-Hitterdal.

But in 2004-05, that changed. The district suffered a net loss of 83 kids to open enrollment, and the following year that rose to 115 students, then to 122 students in the 2006-07 school year.

There are many reasons students choose to attend school in other districts, but the numbers started taking off when LP-A begin talking about deficiencies with its existing buildings and the need for improvements, Hogie said.

One man in the audience disagreed that the condition of the school buildings was behind the exodus, calling Hogie's observation "bogus."

A woman disagreed, saying she had moved to LP-A from a large metro school district and was impressed with LP-A's curriculum and small-school atmosphere, but that her daughter suffered asthma problems because of air quality issues at the LP-A school.

"We talked about open-enrolling out because of building issues," she said.

LP-A is strong academically, offering calculus, chemistry and other upper-level courses that put high school seniors in a position to take college-credit classes, Hogie said.

"Our curriculum is not weak," he said. "LP-A is a leader in meeting state grad standards."

An elderly woman in the crowd called for putting more money into curriculum, not into a new school. When someone else questioned how LP-A could compete academically with larger districts like Detroit Lakes, Hogie said it comes down to an excellent staff.

"It isn't always about money," he said. "It's about how a faculty works together."

"Current facilities are not stopping you from producing teachers and veterinarians and (other professionals)," said an audience member. "You're doing a great job, but no new school is needed."

Some who oppose a new school would like to see the district dissolved and students sent to surrounding school districts.

"How long do you think the state is going to continue to pay for a school every eight miles," asked one man in the crowd.

The state is not pushing for consolidation, and had in fact approved LP-A's building plans, Hogie said.

Skoe, a strong believer in rural schools, agreed.

"I don't think the state is going to go down that road," he said. "If you're willing to build a new school, they're not going to come along and force you to close it. The consolidation that make sense have been done."

Marquart said it is vitally important for districts to be competitive -- in facilities and academics -- because of the state's open-enrollment policy, which is not likely to go away.

"Education is about the three 'E's' -- education, economics and enthusiasm," he said. "All those communities that have school districts in my district have gone up in population."

The dissolution of a school district can be initiated by a petition of a majority of eligible voters and a referendum of majority voters. The dissolution is then facilitated by the county board.

Two Minnesota school districts have dissolved since 1980. In 1993 Verdi was split between Lake Benton and Pipestone, and in 2000 Mentor was split between Fertile-Beltrami and Win-E-Mac. The student population of both districts was "miniscule," Hogie said.

LP-A could also enter into an agreement for secondary education with a neighboring district. The district would have to negotiate tuition cost, transportation, salaries, supplies, text, equipment and other expenses with the other school district. It would also be liable for any operating or building bond levies, and would owe a year's severance pay to district employees.

Five small districts have chosen this arrangement -- Bellingham, Lynd, Cyrus, Balaton and Milroy.

Hogie said residents should not assume that the Detroit Lakes or Hawley school districts could absorb all of LP-A's students without having to pass building bond referendums of their own for additions or new schools. And there is no guarantee that property taxes would be lower under that scenario, he said.

A parent in the crowd objected to the idea of long bus rides that might be required for students going to school in DL or Hawley.

The elderly woman in the crowd responded that she had long bus rides as a child and it didn't hurt her any.

A high school girl asked the crowd to consider the impact on students if the district were dissolved.

"Students here have a lot of school spirit," she said, sounding like she was near tears. "We've been together a long time. It's a mean thing to say to us -- we're kids and we want to stay together, we like it that way."

Sen. Skoe said that his home school district of Clearbrook-Gonvick went through a similar heated debate before it built a new school. Now most people are happy with the school, and in fact many are kicking themselves for not being willing to spend a little more money to build a school with more amenities, he said.

Marquart and Skoe each chair property tax committees in the Legislature, and said they hope to make changes to ease the burden that has been shifted onto rural Minnesotans. Some relief could come as soon as this year, in a special session that now appears likely.

Because there is lot of interest in the LP-A meetings and because not all issues have been covered, another meeting will be held at 7 p.m. Monday at the Lake Park High School.

Topics include the cost for changes to educational services, impact of options on local economies, audience questions and recommendations/solutions.