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In Lake Park, education official gets into nitty gritty of school construction

The Lake Park-Audubon School District brought in an expert on school construction from the state to answer questions about renovation versus building new schools.

John Ryberg, school facilities specialist for the Minnesota Department of Education, spoke to about 40 people in Lake Park Tuesday evening.

He toured the schools in Lake Park and Audubon and said older sections of the buildings have effectively outlived their usefulness.

Be it renovation, new construction, or even consolidation with neighboring districts, LP-A needs to take action, he said.

He confirmed what the district has been saying for several years, that something needs to be done about its facilities and that there are limits on how much renovation is acceptable to the state, which must sign off on school construction plans.

Ryberg said school renovation work should not exceed 60 percent of the cost of new construction.

Such a project would not be cost-effective, and the state would essentially save taxpayers from themselves by rejecting it.

The idea is to save a district from committing to construction bonds that take longer to pay off than the life of the school project they fund.

He said he knows of districts that have tried to save money up front by building on the cheap, and have ended up having to bond for new schools before the renovation bonds were paid off, leaving taxpayers with double the tax burden.

And he said schools that undergo extensive remodeling are expected to be brought up to code in all areas -- lighting, classroom square footage, air quality, electrical, heating, plumbing, and handicapped-accessibility.

"We expect -- and so does your administration and staff -- a suitable learning environment," he said. That's the reason the codes were adopted by the state in the first place, after all.

The purpose of the meeting was to let residents question Ryberg for themselves, since some have accused the district of manipulating the numbers and not taking a real look at renovating as opposed to building new, said Superintendent Dale Hogie.

After several failed referendums that called for a new 7-12 school in Lake Park and a mixture of new construction and renovation at the elementary school in Audubon, the district is exploring a different plan for November.

It has floated the idea of a school in Lake Park for grades 5-12.

It would either be a combination of renovation and new construction at the existing high school building (with an estimated cost of $16.9 million) or a completely new school on donated land for $17.1 million -- only $200,000 more.

The oldest portion of the grade school in Audubon would be demolished and the newer portion would become a pre-K through fourth grade school.

$1.5 million to $2 million would be spent on the elementary school, including improvements to air quality and other basic infrastructure needs.

"After the last election the board listened to feedback, and it kept coming back to keeping costs down," Hogie said.

So the idea is to fix the facilities problem in stages, starting with the high school.

The elementary school improvements would come in 10, 15 or 20 years, if enrollment doesn't increase.

But if enrollment does spike because of the attraction of a new high school, and because population is projected to grow in Becker County -- then the Lake Park school could revert to a 7-12 facility, and the district would put resources into an improved pre-K-6 school in Audubon, Hogie said, in answer to a question from the audience.

The plan would allow for a building bond referendum $6 million to $7 million lower than last time, and would keep the total cost under $20 million.

"The 'field of dreams' thing is not always the case, but more often than not, it does (bring in more students)" Ryberg said.

In answer to a question, Ryberg said the Country Furniture building could be converted into a school, though more land would be required.

The building is about 92,000 square feet and sits on 11 acres, and a total of 39 acres would be required by the state, he said.

The building has concrete floor heat, which would be lost if cut into for the necessary plumbing. A gymnasium would need to be added, and likely sports fields, since it probably wouldn't be feasible to tunnel under or bridge Highway 10, as would be required by the state to use existing fields.

"Everything would have to be retrofitted," he said.

Still, it would be a possibility.

Consolidation is another option, though it would require agreements with surrounding districts.

A young man in the crowd said he doubted any surrounding districts would want to join with LP-A, because of the repeated no votes and negative attitude that some perceive in the district.

But several in the crowd though consolidation should be explored, saying the district is too small to be self-sustaining and Lake Park and Audubon have no future as bedroom communities with gas prices as high as they are.

Others said they moved there precisely for the small-school atmosphere. The district does a good job of educating students, and the kids treat each other and staff members with respect. That was refreshing to see, Ryberg said.

Others said it would kill the towns to lose the school district, and they pointed out that property taxes will actually go up with consolidation. Only Pelican Rapids has lower taxes than LP-A.

"More often than not, your taxes do go up with consolidation," Ryberg said.

LP-A is average size in the Pine to Prairie conference, Hogie said, adding that the state official specializing in consolidation was surprised to hear a district LP-A's size was even talking about it.

School districts in both Hawley and Detroit Lakes are too full to absorb LP-A's students and would have to build, Hogie said.

"You'd rather pay for a new building in Hawley?" a school supporter asked those who seemed to favor consolidation.

If voters keep rejecting referendums, the state will not step in, Ryberg said.

"We have a couple of schools that should have been shut down, but haven't been," he said. "They have holes in the roofs." Only the state fire marshal's office can shut down a school, he said.

The state uses a 175-page Guide for Planning School Construction Projects to help determine whether to accept or reject a project.

It can be reached on the Minnesota Education Department Web site at accountability programs/program finance/facilities health & safety/school construction.