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Swetland, Binde push for $3 million LP-A building bond

Several Lake Park-Audubon School Board members would like to approach the district's building needs in stages, and argued in favor Monday of a smaller, $3 million building bond referendum that would simply renovate the elementary school in Audubon.

School Board Members Jeff Swetland and Dale Binde believe that a limited, elementary school-only referendum would be approved by voters Nov. 4.

The plan could provide a win for the district after several "no" votes in a row, Swetland said, and would stem the open-enrollment outflow at the grade school level.

It would also make it more palatable next year for voters to extend an excess operating levy that expires after 2010, he said.

After the elementary school bond was paid off, or even before then, if necessary, the district could revisit a building bond for the high school.

Both Swetland and Binde said they would prefer to see a full building bond package be approved this year, but worry that voters will reject it again in this uncertain economic climate.

The three other board members who were at the meeting -- Mike McIntire, Rick Ellsworth and Vicky Grondahl -- did not agree that it was a good idea to try to update the district's two schools in stages.

McIntire said he strongly doubts that the Minnesota Department of Education would approve such a plan, since it doesn't address the biggest need, which is the high school in Lake Park.

Ellsworth said he thought the issue had been settled at the last meeting, at which the school board voted unanimously to send the full $19.7 million plan to the Education Department for review. Under that plan, the district would spend about $17 million on a new 7-12 high school on donated land in Lake Park and about $2.7 million on a revamped grade school in Audubon.

Total cost for both buildings would be under $20 million, and Ellsworth believes that is important to voters, some of whom told him early on they would support a school project that came in under $20 million.

Superintendent Dale Hogie explained that several school board members came to him after the vote last meeting, saying they were reluctant to go forward with the full bond referendum because of concerns about the economy.

"I would like to see us get something passed," Swetland said. "If we just went with the $3 million project, instead of $20 million, it would likely pass."

Regarding the $3 million project, Hogie said the district could float a 3-year bond at 3.75 percent that would cost the owner of a $100,000 residential homestead $119 per year.

A 5-year bond would carry a 4 percent interest rate and cost $72 per year.

A 10-year bond would carry a 4.25 percent rate and cost $49 per year.

The downside to the plan, Grondahl said, is "that's four more years we can't do anything with this building (in Lake Park). Construction costs go up each year ...our responsibility is to think long-term."

She reminded the board that state education official John Ryberg warned them earlier that voters almost always forget that improvements were supposed to be built in stages, and get mad and vote no to later building bonds needed to finish the total project.

Swetland said that perhaps the passage of time or fresh faces on the school board would make voters more likely to support a new high school in the future.

Getting a $3 million building bond approved, "would be a small step for the school board, but a giant step for the school district," Swetland said. "Maybe another school board would get it by real smooth."

"If the state would approve it, that would be great," said Binde. "It would be our stepping stone for the future."

A lot of people out there feel the timing is not right to put the full measure on the Nov. 4 ballot, Binde said. Even those who voted "yes" in the past don't seem very enthused or eager to work on behalf of the referendum, he said.

Grondahl acknowledged that everybody is tired, including board members, but that doesn't mean yes voters won't support the district at election time. Said she has talked to several people who want the full measure on the ballot this year.

Ellsworth also strongly disagreed.

"We were elected to do a job," he said, "Our job description doesn't include passing the buck to future boards because we think we can't handle it."

McIntire spoke passionately about the need for the full package.

"My feeling is we need to do the whole project, not just part of it," he said. "I think the community has put a gag on us -- they're going to find out pretty soon they are going to lose their school if they don't support what they have."

Swetland argued that a small victory would get momentum rolling the district's way. "Right now it's snowballing against us," he said.

Binde made it clear that he will support "whatever project the majority of the board supports."

Hogie will try to find out if the state will approve the stand-alone project in Audubon.

The board is supposed to make its final decision on a referendum at a special meeting 8 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 3 at the school in Audubon.