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LP-A candidates debate $19.5M school bond issue

LAKE PARK - The shape of Lake Park-Audubon schools is on top of residents' minds this election season.

Community members packed the Lake Park High School theater for a Wednesday school board candidate debate, and organizers from the Lakes Area League of Women Voters scrambled to fit extra chairs in front of the stage. Then, the seven candidates promptly tackled the district's divisive facilities issue - long before the moderator started lobbing a battery of questions about it.

Besides filling three seats up for grabs this November, voters here will weigh in on a school building bond for the fifth time in roughly three years. The school district is asking for about $19.5 million to fund the construction of a new high school in Lake Park and pressing renovations at the Audubon elementary.

District officials have argued the proposal will address a laundry list of concerns about the aging schools, from lead in the high school water to outdated ventilation, and let the district save up on mounting maintenance bills. They point out the latest plan shaves off $6 million from one voters narrowly defeated in December. Bond opponents argue the project is still too extravagant for the small school district, especially in these lean economic times.

The school board candidates wasted no time in broaching the issue. It cropped up in answers to questions on anything from the board's role to extracurricular activities. Candidates dwelled on it in answers to several questions on the issue. A parent, for instance, asked why she shouldn't enroll her kindergartner in a different district if the referendum fails again.

Four contenders - Bryan Anderson, incumbent Dale Binde, Darrel Pederson and Carmen Walter - expressed support for the building project. George Kohn and Dan Hughes, a member of the so-called Cormorant Four, the most outspoken opposition to the bond, arguing alternately for repairs over new construction and for consolidation with neighboring districts.

Monica LaPoint, who has four children in the district, acknowledged the need to address the facility problems but wondered if there might be a cheaper solution the community could rally around.

Kohn and Hughes argued the community can't afford the project. They said the bond referendum is undermining the district's chances of renewing its operating levy, which expires next year.

"Brick and mortar does not teach children," Hughes said. "Teachers teach children."

Supporters of the project countered the aging facilities are eating up district resources, chasing students to neighboring districts and limiting educators.

"As a farmer and landowner, I don't want my taxes to go up, either, but sometimes it's necessary," said Anderson.

Added Binde, "If we don't do something for our building issue, we're holding the kids back."

The opponents were able to unite in touting teachers' hard work, the district's strong football program and the elementary's Minnesota School of Excellence award.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mila Koumpilova at (701) 241-5529