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Lake Park-Audubon School Board split on November vote

LAKE PARK - After a long discussion Monday evening, one thing was clear: The Lake Park-Audubon School Board is torn over whether to put a building bond referendum on the November ballot.

On the one hand, high gas prices and concerns about a shaky economy have some school board members wondering if the district should "take a breather," as Dale Binde put it, and leave the referendum off the November ballot.

"Over the last couple weeks, I've talked to several community members that are for the new facility, but think we should take a breather and come back at it later," Binde said.

"I think if we took a year off, " said board member Rick Olson, "gave it some thought, looked at some more options, I don't think it would put us that much further back."

On the other hand, interest rates on referendum bonds have been heading slowly upwards the past few years, and some school board members believe the district needs to act now to take advantage of interest rates while they are still low.

Board members Rick Ellsworth and Vicky Grondahl argued passionately against delay.

"You still have an obligation to do what's best for the kids," Ellsworth said. "We have a proposal that's under $20 million -- about what we can afford. It's a general election, people will be at the polls this year -- I say stay the course, bring it to the people.

"If they turn it down, you have to re-think everything. If it gets to the point they won't support anything, then we've got real trouble."

Grondahl suggested that the board reconsider its plan to move grades 5 and 6 from the elementary school at Audubon to the high school at Lake Park.

"It alienates Audubon people who feel they are not being treated fairly, it alienates parents who don't want grades 5 and 6 at the high school," she said.

She suggested the board consider an option that would build a new 7-12 school on donated land in Lake Park and spend about $3 million on improvements, largely on heating and ventilation, at the elementary school.

The option would eliminate plans for geothermal heating/cooling at the new high school and put the savings into the Audubon building, which would see the older portion demolished and seven new classrooms constructed. It would also receive a new mechanical room and new furniture, among other improvements. Total cost for both buildings would still be under $20 million.

"You are still going to have an efficient building, even without geothermal," Grondahl said.

Binde had qualms about giving up geothermal, since he believes it will save the district a lot of money in the long term.

The district will have to "plead its case" to the state education department, said Superintendent Dale Hogie, and hope that it accepts the plan without requiring that the entire elementary building be brought up to code.

That would effectively kill any renovation plans, Ellsworth said, since "I'm not going to put $5 million into a building that's falling apart." Grondahl agreed.

With the bond interest rate at its currently projected 4.8 percent, the project would raise taxes on a $100,000 home less than $170 a year, Ellsworth said. "That's like filling up your gas tank four times -- for a new school," he said.

Binde pointed out that it will cost more for the owner of a $200,000 home or $300,000 home. Ellsworth countered that the median home value in the district is $120,000, and there is nothing wrong with using that as an example.

Board Member Lori Bartunek spoke in support of a November referendum. "The needs have not changed from when we started," she said. "By waiting, the needs are never going to go away -- you can't do it for less than $20 million and have a building that will adequately serve the district."

The biggest problem the district faces with the issue, she said, is that "we don't have a (community) consensus that we need a new building -- we have people still saying we don't need a new building," Bartunek added.

In a nod to referendum opponents who don't trust the district's architectural firm, Zer-Berg of Fargo, Board Member Jeff Swetland suggested a "peer review" of the proposal. "We could have a firm in Fargo do a peer review, a double check, to see if there are areas we could cut costs," he said. "It's a way to show people we are looking out for every dollar we spend."

Superintendent Dale Hogie said he liked the idea, but cautioned that it could be expensive, since the district would likely be charged an hourly rate for the review.

"There will be people who will find fault with whatever you do," he pointed out. "What you have to decide as a board is, do you go forward, or do you wait?"

If the board wants to proceed with a November vote, it will have to act within the next few weeks in order to meet statutory deadlines for a building bond referendum, Grondahl said.

"We have to reach a consensus," she said. "We have to make a decision -- and we don't have much time."

The board opted to have a committee meet again with four Cormorant area men who have been vocal opponents of the referendums in the past. That meeting is set for 8 p.m. Thursday in the high school library.

The school board will come together 8 p.m. Monday at the high school for a special meeting to make a decision on a November referendum vote.