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Hearing from the other side -- LP-A School Board members talk peace with referendum opponents

Score one for civil society.

Four members of the "vote no" group sat down with three members of the Lake Park-Audubon School Board Tuesday night and nobody got hit. Or even shouted at.

The four -- Ellis Peterson, Roland Lampton, Dan Hughes and Jim Lund, all of the Cormorant area -- met with school board members Jeff Swetland, Dale Bind and Rick Olson, as well as Superintendent Dale Hogie.

There was no group hug, but they actually had a pretty decent discussion, cleared the air, and explained where they were coming from on the contentious issue of new school facilities in LP-A. They met for more than two hours.

Voters have shot down four building bond proposals in the past few years and the board is leaning towards putting a new plan -- a new 5-12 building in Lake Park -- on the November ballot.

It would likely involve a new school on donated land at a cost estimated at $17.1 million.

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.

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.

The plan would keep the total cost under $20 million.

The four Cormorant men predicted that a November referendum would almost certainly fail, making the district's open-enrollment problem worse.

The district needs to step back, put another vote on hold, and work to build consensus in the fractured district, Lund said. "We believe that if the referendum is held in November, it will lose by such a large margin, there will be no coming back, and we don't want that," he said.

Peterson added that, "I got the message loud and clear," from John Ryberg, school facilities specialist for the Minnesota Department of Education, who spoke in Lake Park last month. "We need to reach a consensus. Our bottom line is we have to do it for the students."

A building bond referendum that includes only minimal improvements to the school in Audubon will be political "suicide," Lund said, since it would be soundly defeated by Audubon voters.

The board is aware of that, Swetland said, but the referendum has never passed in Audubon anyway, and the hope is that "yes" voters there will see the big picture and support the new plan, while voters elsewhere will support it because the price tag is now under $20 million.

The board understands the pitfalls of holding a vote this year, but bond rates are low now and it wants to take advantage of that while it can, he added.

"We don't know when they will go higher," Swetland said.

"We both want to educate kids," Hughes said of the two opposing sides. "We both want the same things."

Everyone agrees that LP-A does a good job of educating students, Hughes added.

With just two years left before the district will have to ask voters to renew the existing excess levy referendum, he said, "We have fears that paying for a new school will hurt the ability to pay for education -- you'll have a nice building with no money for education."

Voters will never support both a building bond levy and an operating levy, he said.

And they shouldn't see the excess levy referendum as a continuation of existing taxes, they should see it as an increase, since taxes would drop if it failed, he said.

School board members didn't necessarily agree that voters wouldn't support both referendums, but mostly listened or briefly explained their position.

The Cormorant men also want the district to dump the Zerr-Berg architectural firm -- which they fear is padding the project cost to earn higher fees -- and hire a construction manager who would oversee a bid process for hiring an architect.

School Board members like Zerr-Berg and believe the firm is honest and reasonable, based on its reputation and the satisfaction level of other school districts that have used the firm.

Its cost estimates have been much lower than the district's first consultants, the DLR Group, which based its estimates on the higher-cost Twin Cities market.

Hogie noted that LP-A's project cost per square foot is close to what school projects cost in the Fargo-Moorhead area.

The referendum opponents urged the board to seriously consider all options, including renovation of the Country Furniture building.

Lund repeatedly told the board members they had to change their attitudes.

"You're in survival mode, at best," he said. "Unless you start thinking that way, you're going to auger down."

The Cormorant men did most of the talking, and Swetland did most of the responding for the board, quietly providing history and background to the men, and explaining the board's decision-making process.

"The hardest thing anyone can do is vote to raise their own taxes," he said at one point.