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As referendum goes, so goes LP-A district?

LP-A Superintendent Dale Hogie, at right, talks to a crowd at the Lake Park school Monday about a one-time opportunity to have the federal government pay for interest on a $21 million school construction project.

It's a one-time opportunity, but it could also be a double-edged sword.

The opportunity to have the federal government shave more than $10 million off the cost of a school construction project in Lake Park-Audubon will likely inspire some of the people who voted "no" in the last five elections to finally vote "yes."

But if the $21.1 million building bond referendum fails -- times are still tough, after all -- it may kill not just the new school, but the district itself.

Supporters will feel there's no community support and no hope of things ever improving, and the district could slip into a downward spiral of crumbling schools and students leaving for other school districts.

That's what some supporters fear, and that would be bad not just for LP-A students and staff, but for the communities of Audubon and Lake Park as a whole, according to Ken Pearson, who served as mayor of Callaway for 24 years.

He spoke to about 85 people at a public meeting on the bond referendum Monday in Lake Park.

The closing of the Callaway school a few years ago had a profound impact on the community, he said.

"What I've seen happen in Callaway is a decline in community spirit," he said. "It's harder to get people involved -- there's nothing that brings them together like the school did."

He noticed buses from four school districts picking up kids in Callaway recently.

"It just tore it apart -- the kids really just got split up," he said.

Now the volunteer fire department is finding it difficult to recruit volunteers and even some churches are seeing a decline in membership, as Callaway kids make friends in school and follow their friends to church elsewhere.

"I can tell you what happens to a community when a school closes," he said. "Do whatever you can (to keep that from happening). Yes, there is trouble with finances, taxes will go up, but a school is just essential for a community to keep it healthy and alive."

Pearson said he was not asked to speak at the meeting, but has two granddaughters at LP-A, knows its academic excellence, and has been watching the situation there for four or five years.

Superintendent Dale Hogie devoted part of the two-hour meeting to looking at the possibility of the district dissolving and being incorporated into surrounding districts -- even listing the pros and cons.

"Huge changes will occur" if the referendum fails, he said. It will show there's no support for school improvements.

If the district dissolves, property taxes will "go up all over" in the former LP-A school district, he said.

Property taxes are already substantially higher in the Ulen-Hitterdal and Hawley school districts, while taxes would rise in Detroit Lakes because it would have to pass a building bond and add to its schools to make room for hundreds of former LP-A students.

A few in the crowd talked about being part of several generations that attended the local school, and said they were ashamed at how the repeated "no" votes looked to outsiders.

But a number of "no" voters seemed unconvinced, with one man aggressively questioning the district's construction manager on cost estimates, and another questioning whether MnDOT would allow access to Highway 10 for a new school road.

(The construction manager, Steve Gehrtz of Gehrtz Construction Services of Fargo, said he is absolutely confident in his cost estimates, which were reinforced when a recent bid award for a DL clinic came in at $144 per square foot, roughly what he projects the new school to cost.

Hogie said MnDOT has not made any written promises on Highway 10 access, but is aware of the project and made the highway wider to allow space for a turn lane there. There will also be at least one street, and possibly two, connecting the new high school to the rest of Lake Park.)

The school district is in the enviable position of having federal stimulus funds pay for about $10.5 million in interest over the 17-year life of the bonds, thanks to a successful grant application last year by Hogie.

"It's the same project as last time," he said.

"The only thing that has changed is the (lower) cost, due to federal funds," he added.

The plan calls for a new 7-12 high school on donated land in Lake Park and new construction/renovation at the elementary school in Audubon. Go to the district's website for details.

The district "was in the right place at the right time," in getting its stimulus grant applications submitted quickly last spring, said Joel Sutter, executive vice president with the district's financial advisor, Ehlers and Associates of Roseville.

But, he cautioned, "this is a one-time opportunity -- these bonds are only offered in 2009 and 2010."

If the building bond referendum succeeds on May 25, it will mean additional taxes of $146 a year on a $100,000 home, he said.

If it's any consolation, that is still under the state average for school property taxes, and LP-A residents will still pay less in school taxes than Hawley, Frazee-Vergas and Ulen-Hitterdal, among other area schools.

"The large amount of lakeshore property really helps your tax base in this district," Sutter said.

Farmers and other LP-A residents can call Ehler's "tax hotline" at 1-800-552-1171 and provide their parcel ID number to find out how the proposed referendum would affect their tax bill.

Another public meeting on the proposed building bond referendum is set for 7 p.m. Thursday, May 6, at the Audubon school.