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Emotions high at LP-A school board meeting

Emotions ran high among Lake Park-Audubon School Board members Wednesday as they tried to decide whether to put a school building measure on the ballot.

Stung by three building bond referendum defeats within the last two years, Board Member Jeff Swetland pushed long and hard for the board to try a different approach this time around.

He wanted the board to sit down with leaders of the "vote no" effort and try to negotiate some kind of compromise.

Specifically, he wants to ask them if they would support a new school if the Minnesota Department of Education were to officially reject a "repair-only" plan from the school district.

The state has already given verbal rejection to such a plan, said Superintendent Dale Hogie, but Swetland argued that an official rejection of the repair option, in black and white on paper, would convince distrustful "no" voters that a new school is the only viable course of action.

"Why don't we ask the people who run the 'No Committee'?" Swetland said. "We know who they are. They have names. Why don't we ask them if they would support it if the state rejects the repair option?"

They don't necessarily speak for all 1,100 people who voted no, said Board Chairwoman Vicky Grondahl. Others on the board agreed.

A dialogue with opponents was the whole point of the string of community meetings held earlier this year, noted Board member Lori Bartunek. "We did listen to them," she said.

"How did we listen to them? People were barking at them -- it went back and forth," Swetland said.

"I listened to them," Bartunek said.

"I did, too," Swetland said.

"Everyone said that small group session (at the last community meeting) was a worthwhile exercise," Grondahl added.

Swetland did not entirely agree, and said if the board does not want to prove that repairs are not an option, it should at least quit pushing so hard on the schools project and wait a year before it considers any more referendums.

"Are we losing anything by waiting until next November?" he asked.

"We're losing a year of time and we're losing (money to) inflation," responded Grondahl.

With construction costs in the Red River Valley area increasing about 5 percent a year, a year's delay could easily add $600,000 to $700,000 to the cost of a school project.

"What will we gain by waiting a year?" asked School Board Member Rick Ellsworth.

"Maybe the respect of the 'no' voters?" replied Swetland.

"I don't need their respect," said Ellsworth, a large Audubon man who can be a bit combative. "I don't want their respect."

That drew gasps from the eight or 10 "no" voters in the audience, and led to a brief, angry exchange between two men and Ellsworth.

"You're an idiot," one man said.

"Are you serious? You are an idiot," agreed the second man.

Grondahl had to ask the crowd to be quiet several times, as people complained loudly to each other.

"Any more comments and you'll be asked to leave," she told them. "I think we all need to do a better job of controlling our comments."

Swetland said a year's delay would provide a cooling off period for "the people who are very angry with us. I don't see any reason to come back at them (with referendum votes) again and again."

But even he admitted that the best course of action for the district is to build a new school.

"If I had the last vote on whether to repair or build a new school, I would build a new school," he said.

But Swetland said the board should do more to win over the 'no' voters.

"Whatever their tactics in the past -- spreading misinformation, throwing rocks with paper tied on in people's driveways ... maybe these people have earned a spot (at the table)," Swetland said. "They have defeated us three times in a row. They've kicked our butt."

Ellsworth heatedly disagreed. "You're way off on this," he told Swetland. "I've talked to a number of people in the past, who had voted no, who said 'if the price is right, I'd vote yes.' Ninety-seven votes (the difference in the last failed referendum May 8) is not that much."

The May 8 vote was over a new 7-12 school in Lake Park and a combination of new construction/remodeling at the K-6 school in Audubon.

Later in the meeting, Ellsworth softened his comments toward the opposition.

"Earlier, I said I don't need the respect of the 'no' voters," he said. "That doesn't mean I don't listen to what they say. And one thing they say that makes sense is to do it economically."

In that spirit, at its last meeting, the board oversaw about $2.8 million in cuts from the May 8 project, stripping out amenities such as paved parking lots, lower-maintenance floor and wall coverings in high-traffic areas, new ball fields, full-power generators and even landscaping -- all things that do not directly impact the students' education.

On Wednesday, most board members appeared to support offering that option to voters in December, along with a second option -- approval of the full plan as presented in the May 8 referendum. Voters would still have the ability to vote 'no' on both options, of course.

Though Swetland stuck to his opinion that the board should submit a "repairs-only" plan to the state for approval or rejection, others pointed out that it would be an expensive gesture to make.

Leaving aside the fact that no one on the board believes that trying to repair the aging buildings is the best route to go, it would essentially cost the district some $1.2 million to go through the process of getting an official state rejection. That's a combination of higher construction costs and lost investment revenue from a bond sale, Hogie said.

Grondahl noted that each of the three referendum votes has been closer, to the point where "the difference between 'yes' and 'no' voters is negligible ... I wouldn't be asking the people to vote if I didn't totally believe it's the right thing to do," she added. "It's not like buying a new school bus, it's the core of our district."

Added Ellsworth: "Why do our kids deserve less than the kids in the districts around us, or kids in Fargo or Moorhead?" he asked.

Board members Lori Bartunek, Dale Binde and Rick Olson also voiced support for putting two questions on the ballot, and holding the vote this year.

Voters could choose between the full-value project at $26.7 million or the bare-basics project at $23.8 million.

No action was taken, since it was a discussion meeting. But Hogie will talk to legal counsel about the requirements of a multiple-question referendum ballot, and the board will consider acting on the matter at its regular meeting 8 p.m. Monday in Audubon.

Under a tentative timeline for a special election, the board would adopt a formal resolution calling for the election on Oct. 26 and hold the election Dec. 18.