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LP-A board debates school options

LAKE PARK - How about a new pre-K-6 elementary school in Audubon this year and new 7-12 school in Lake Park next year?

That was the idea proposed by Lake Park-Audubon School Board Member Dale Binde at a special meeting Monday in Lake Park.

"If I'm going to have a (referendum) vote, I want it to pass," he said. "If it isn't going to pass, maybe it's time to move on to something else. Maybe it's time to ask the community -- do you want a school, or not? If not, maybe it's time to dissolve."

Binde's proposal drew interest, and some opposition, from other board members, a majority of whom appeared to favor a plan to spend about $17 million on a new 7-12 high school on donated land in Lake Park and another $3 million or so on a revamped grade school in Audubon.

Binde said he has been informally polling people in the community, and the vast majority that he talks to, even of previous 'yes' voters, don't want another vote in November, he said.

"I think we should do the $9 million over there, then wait a year and do the $17 million over here, if that's an option voters will go for," he said. "Something's got to change from the last two votes -- if it's not drastically different, I don't know where it will end up."

Binde believes a new pre-kindergarten through grade 6 school will keep young families from open-enrolling out of the district.

Board member Lori Bartunek was interested in the idea, since she believes a lot of the open enrollment is occurring at the elementary school level, but Superintendent Dale Hogie could not immediately confirm that.

Hogie also had doubts that the state would approve such a plan, since it leaves the needs of the high school unmet.

Board Chairwoman Vicky Grondahl was also skeptical.

"So you'd have an election and then come back a year later and have another election? What are the chances of it passing then? Do you think that's realistic?" she asked Binde.

Better to get something than nothing, Binde said. With gas prices high and the economy uncertain, voters are not likely to be in a generous mood this November.

"They're just tired of it and they want us to give it a break," he said of the people he has talked to.

Frustrated board members echoed the sentiment.

"I'm tired of it, too, but we need a resolution," said Rick Ellsworth. "You're going to have more people out there voting in November than you'll see in the next four years."

That doesn't mean they're going to vote 'yes,' Binde noted, referring to a school district that held seven referendum votes and finally got a new school passed in a primary election.

"Everybody is spooked right now because of high gas prices and energy costs, everything is very uncertain," Grondahl said. But waiting until November of 2009 "is a long cooling off period," she added. "We'd have to bring everybody back up to speed. We'd have to go over ground everybody is pretty familiar with right now."

And the cost of gasoline might not be any lower, she added.

Meanwhile the needs of students, which drove the effort for improved schools in the first place, get left by the wayside, Grondahl added. Waiting also makes the project more expensive.

"I just couldn't come up with any reason that could convince me there is merit in waiting," she said.

Board member Mike McIntire said he is "sitting on the fence," but fears the district will lose an offer of donated land, and the prime site for a school that goes with it, if it waits too long.

"One thing that concerns me is community consensus," said Board Member Rick Olson. "I have no doubt we have board consensus, or close to it, anyway, but I don't think we've achieved community consensus."

Grondahl disagreed.

"That phrase has been thrown around a lot since John Ryberg (school facilities specialist for the Minnesota Department of Education John) was here," she said.

"But every building bond that I've seen (pass in other school districts) has squeaked by -- 51 percent, 52 percent, 53 percent. That means there are 47 percent, 48 percent, 49 percent that don't agree. If those communities had waited until they had 100 percent consensus, those schools would never have been built."

The board discussed the possibility of converting the Country Furniture store into a school, but were under whelmed at the prospect.

"I can't see where it could be cost-effective,' McIntire said. To do it right the district would probably have to buy up two or three businesses in the area, he said.

"How is that going to work? By the time you get done buying the land and buying the building and adding on, it's just not a good option."

Grondahl agreed. "You're taking something that was never designed to be a school -- no one would ever put a school there -- you're trying to make it something it was never designed to be."

The site is too close to Highway 10, and Bartunek worried that it would just be a matter of time before a student was hit trying to cross the highway.

"It would be a very dangerous situation," she said. "We'd have to truly believe we could prevent accidents there."

Grondahl, Ellsworth and Bartunek argued in support of the $20 million plan. Jeff Swetland didn't attend the meeting.

If the board opts to put either the $20 million plan or Binde's proposal for new elementary school on the ballot, voters need to be fully aware that it's only a partial fix, and more money will be needed later to improve or replace either the grade school or the high school.

At that point the board is likely to face "voter amnesia" from voters who won't remember that they were told more work would be needed, Grondahl warned. Those voters will be angry with the school board for not having taken care of all needs with the first vote.

The board set a tentative special meeting date of 8 p.m. July 7 at the Audubon school to review architectural options and further discuss a course of action.

The regular monthly meeting is set for July 21.