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The good, the bad and the ugly -- LP-A looks at 12 building options

A host of ideas, 12 in all, were considered Thursday when the Lake Park-Audubon School Board discussed options for school improvements.

The ideas were compiled from suggestions from the community and past experience. Some options include "very rough projections" from the district's architect, Zerr-Berg, said LP-A Superintendent Dale Hogie. "But it gets you in the ballpark, it gets you close," he told the board.

-- Option 1 -- build a new K-12 at one site, either at Audubon, Lake Park or a rural site in between.

The board quickly ruled out one site in either Lake Park or Audubon because of "equity issues," as Board Chairwoman Vicky Grondahl put it -- it wouldn't be fair to the community that didn't get the school.

The state department of education is not fond of "corn field schools," in the middle of nowhere, said Hogie, but "Highway 10 is not that, it's a main artery, so we had positive feedback on that."

The idea has worked well in other consolidated districts, Grondahl noted. The downsides include the cost of land, utilities, transportation issues and security concerns.

-- Spend $4 million to $5 million on repairs.

This idea was included for consideration because it was proposed by a local concerned taxpayers group, with the idea that a building bond would be put off for five or six years until the financial climate of the time became clear.

One obvious advantage is that it requires fewer tax dollars, said board member Dale Binde.

"How does that facilitate education?" asked board member Rick Ellsworth.

"Where would you even start?" added Grondahl. "Would you do the boiler first, or wiring and technology? Is water quality more important than air quality?"

Because of the needs, "you wouldn't even see the difference," made by spending that amount of money on the two existing schools, Ellsworth said.

"That's just not a viable option," said board member Rick Olson.

Such limited repairs may not even be possible, because of state requirements that all state codes be met if more than 20 percent of floor space in a building is renovated, Hogie said.

"You as board members ruled out repairs a long time ago at $10 million -- the state says you have to become code-compliant."

On top of that, Grondahl noted that this option "does nothing for education -- nothing."

Swetland urged the board to pursue the option of repairs with the state until it responds in writing on the code-compliance issue, in order to prove to skeptics in the district that repairs really are not a viable option.

Hogie said he would do so.

-- Limit spending to $13 to $14 million.

The presumption behind this suggestion is that this figure is as much as taxpayers in the LP-A district are willing to spend.

The district could probably build a new school for that, but it would be too small to meet the needs of students, Ellsworth said.

And it would have to be built of material that would cause it to become a maintenance nightmare in a few years, said board member Jeff Swetland.

There's a perception that $120 a square foot (the projected cost of a new building) is too high -- it's not," said Hogie, pointing out that a school in Fargo cost $110-$111 per square foot three years ago, and construction costs have risen since then.

The Clearwater-Gonvick School District is now adding six classrooms to a building that most now admit was built too small a few years ago, according to State Sen. Rod Skoe of Clearwater. He said even those opposed to the new school at the time now wish they had built it larger and with more amenities.

"It would be poor long-term planning on our part," said board member Lori Bartunek. "It would be a short-term solution."

The district might consider making long-range improvements in technology and education to spur future enrollment growth, then adding to the school later, she said.

-- Bond for $500,000 per year for 25 years, spend $1.5 million on repairs over the first three years, complete projects in 25 years with bonded amount plus interest earned.

This idea was submitted by a citizen. It was rejected by the board because the rising cost of construction over 25 years would put the project at over $85 million, leaving the district more than $60 million short.

Still, "it's nice that people put this much thought into it," said Bartunek. "People forget about inflation," added Olson.

-- Go with three schools by renovating the Audubon elementary school for grades K-4, renovating the Lake Park school for grades 5-8, and building a new high school for grades 9-12.

The idea is to make use of existing buildings to enable the district to build a less expensive new school, Hogie said. But he believes it would be "grossly inefficient" to divide a student body of about 650 kids into three schools. "You'd need three eating areas and you'd have a lot of duplicated areas -- triplicated areas," he said. It would also provide less class size flexibility from year to year, Grondahl said.

"It's not viable to build a third building and not do anything to the existing buildings," said board member Dale Binde.

"Eventually, the older buildings are going to need something, in 10 or 12 years," Bartunek added.

Current renovation costs are pegged at about $85 per square foot, and current costs to build new are at about $120 per square foot, Hogie said. "The concern is that this solution would be less expensive in the short-term, but more expensive in the long run."

-- Similar problems exist with the sixth option, to renovate the Audubon school into a K-5 facility, and also renovate the Lake Park school for K-5 and build a centrally located 6-12 school.

"People wouldn't think highly of operating three buildings instead of two," Olson said.

"Our costs would end up being far higher than what we've got now ... it defeats the idea of pairing and sharing and consolidation," Grondahl added.

-- Swetland argued forcefully for option 7, which is to postpone major renovation work on the K-6 building in Audubon and build a new high school in Lake Park.

"Elementary enrollments are increasing, but we're losing them in the high school," he said. "I think this is something we should consider."

"It would make more sense to rehab the elementary school," Binde agreed, "though I think the high school is in greater need."

"Jeff's assessment is right," Hogie said. "We start losing them at 16," when they drop out or attend the Alternative Learning Center in Detroit Lakes.

"The talk of the 'ghetto school' is less at the elementary than the high school," Swetland added. "I don't think bringing the same thing up again for a vote is in our best interests."

This option would cost about $22 million instead of $26 million, because there would still be about $3 million worth of work needed at the elementary school, Hogie said.

"Hard facts are questioned by the public," Hogie said.

"If they don't believe hard and fast facts that weren't even generated by us," he said, he's not sure the public will believe the district intends to come back and rehab the elementary school in five or six years.

"It will be a different board, maybe a different administrator," Hogie added.

-- Option 8 is to postpone the 7-12 school and complete the K-6 proposal.

"Where is the equity with either of these plans?" asked Ellsworth. "We've had three votes -- think real long and real hard about the next vote you're going to have, because this one has to count," he said.

-- Options 9 and 10 are to demolish the 1922 portion of the Audubon school and reconfigure it into either a K-4 (option 9) or a K-5 (option 10) school, then build a new 5-12 or 6-12 school in Lake Park.

Cost estimates are about $21.8 million for option 9 and $21.4 million for option 10, with minimal renovation/repair to the elementary school.

-- Option 11 is to demolish portions of the Audubon school, do renovation and new construction there for a K-4 school, and build a 5-12 school at Lake Park.

At $26.8 million, it has no cost savings over the most recent proposal -- shot down by fewer than 100 votes in the last election -- to build new and renovate the grade school and build a new high school.

"There are equity issues with options 9,10 and 11," Ellsworth said.

"A question we don't know the answer to -- which is more important to the public, equity or cost?" Grondahl added.

If the district moves grades 4, 5 or 6 to Lake Park, some Audubon residents will see it as the beginning of a move to phase out a school in Audubon, Ellsworth said.

"I think most people in that end of the district will be (thinking), 'Why not just build a K-12 (school) in Lake Park and get it over with?'" Ellsworth said.

-- The last option is to explore ways to lower the cost of the May 8 proposal rejected by voters. Ideas included delaying the paving of parking lots, welcoming voluntary labor on site construction work, and delaying the construction of sports fields at the new high school. Some also want to lower the 5 percent (about $1 million) contingency reserve built into the May 8 project.

That can be dangerous, especially when dealing with renovation work, Hogie cautioned.

Swetland continued to push for the new high school/delayed elementary project.

"We can't go to the voters with the same plan," he said.

Ellsworth disagreed, saying he wants to find a way to lower the cost of the May 8 plan.

"If you're looking at education first, we have to stay as close as possible to the new 7-12 school and new/remodel K-6 in Audubon -- that's putting education first," he said.

No final decision was made Thursday.

""This was not a decision-making meeting," Hogie said. "When we meet again we can probably start eliminating options ... Get to two or three and have a serious discussion on those specific options.

That next meeting was set for 7 p.m. Sept. 6 at the Audubon Elementary media center.

About a dozen people attended the special meeting Thursday, with about half of them staying for the whole three hours.