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Landslide 'yes' for new LP-A school

Supporters of a new school in Lake Park-Audubon cheer Tuesday night after hearing the vote totals announced by Board Chairwoman Vicky Grondahl. The 'yes' vote passed by 60 percent.1 / 2
There was a big voter turnout for the Lake Park-Audubon building bond referendum Tuesday. Above, election judges were kept busy at Audubon Elementary School.2 / 2

School supporters cheered like they'd just won the state football championship Tuesday after learning that voters in the Lake Park-Audubon School District had overwhelmingly voted "yes" Tuesday on a $21.1 million school construction bond.

The cheers in the Audubon Elementary School gymnasium turned to hugs, handshakes and high fives after Board Chairwoman Vicky Grondahl announced the vote total: 1,538 "yes" votes to 1,018 "no" votes.

It was a high turnout for a special election, and Superintendent Dale Hogie credited a surge of community support for getting the referendum passed.

"This was really helped by a core group of our community coming together," he said. "We've been one as a school -- this may help us become one as a community."

School board members were jubilant.

"This is one of the best days of my life and absolutely the best day on the school board," said Rick Ellsworth. "I'm glad it passed."

"We had something this time that we hadn't had before," Grondahl said. "Everybody in the community was on board. I can't thank the community enough -- they made it happen."

The referendum passed by a wide margin at the Lake Park precinct, 993 "yes" votes to 423 "no" votes.

And it was a near-draw at the Audubon precinct, with 595 "no" votes to 545 "yes" votes.

"We lost by 50 votes in Audubon and won by 500 votes in Lake Park," said Board Member Jeff Swetland.

He wished the yes vote would have carried the day in Audubon, too, but pointed out that the referendum gained substantial support in Audubon compared to prior elections. "It feels great," he said. "Boy, am I glad it passed."

"Today was a decisive victory," said School Board Member Bryan Anderson. "People showed that they care about the communities and want their kids to go to school here. They showed they cared about the quality of education with the passage of the operating bond (last year) and now the facilities issue. Lake Park-Audubon is going to stay around for a long time."

The stakes were high for this election, because the district would have lost $10.5 million in federal stimulus funding had the referendum failed.

"We thought when we got the $10.5 million the 'no' people would fade away, but obviously that didn't happen," said Diane Levin, a leader of the 'vote yes' effort. "Many people were active," she said. "The passion of the people this time was so high -- it felt like we were fighting for our lives."

Joel Sutter, Senior Vice President of Ehlers & Associates, Inc., the district's consulting firm, told Hogie that "this is an ideal time to be selling bonds," Hogie said.

The board will likely hold a special meeting to begin the process, and Sutter will lay out some options for the board at that time.

Zerr Berg Architects of Fargo will work with the district to finalize designs for both the new 7-12 high school in Lake Park and the upgraded PK-6 elementary school in Audubon.

"We'll make sure it fits our needs, then begin the design process -- it will probably be a two-month period to get through that," Hogie said.

New construction outside the existing school in Audubon could begin this fall, and the entire renovation and reconstruction project there is expected to be completed before school opens next September.

The new school in Lake Park is expected to be ready for students in the fall of 2012.

The property tax increase won't be felt until next May, but there are state property tax refunds -- up to 85 percent or $2,000, depending on a variety of factors -- that could help cushion the blow of first-year taxes, and another property tax refund that could help with ongoing costs.

The effort to improve the schools has been a lot of work, with several referendums that came close, but failed to pass, Hogie said.

Ironically, that helped set the stage for the district to apply for and be awarded the federal stimulus money, which in turn will make the project more affordable for taxpayers.

The building bond levy will cost the owner of a homesteaded $100,000 house about $146 a year.

"The (total) tax impact on our voters will still be under the state average," Hogie said.

The school district announced the election results through its instant alert messaging system, and students were told during announcements Wednesday.

"The last time we had a building bond referendum fail, we had kids crying in school," Hogie said late Tuesday evening. "That shouldn't be the case tomorrow."