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To build or not to build: DL school board talks looking at proposing another bond referendum in 2018

It's time for Detroit Lakes School Board members to really start getting their hands dirty if they're going to pass a resolution for a bond referendum by the Minnesota Department of Education's July 2018 deadline. But laying out a plan is proving to be a tricky task with a new equity law that's requiring the district to distribute teachers throughout the schools according to experience level.

Hoping to solve the issue before a new building bond comes into play, the district looked at changing the elementary schools to grade-alike schools, which is one way to evenly distribute teachers across a district.

"We talked about logistically with the numbers, if there's any way we could create that now to help the numbers," said Education Director Renee Kerzman. "We can tell you right now we can't do that. We tried every scenario."

Putting three grades at Rossman Elementary school would push the numbers well over capacity, into the high 600's and, not to mention, transportation to and from school would change dramatically, as would a number of other factors.

"You're basically starting two new elementary's a lot of work," said Rossman Elementary Principal Jason Kuehn. "It's not something to say, 'Hey, let's do this tomorrow'."

The issue then is whether the district plans a bond referendum around keeping the schools as neighborhood schools or around changing them to grade alike, a difference that could impact what and where they need to build.

"I don't think you do it to save space," said Brenda Muckenhirn, school board vice-chair. "You do it because it's the best education option for the kids."

Though, the research on whether grade alike or neighborhood schools are superior is not black-and-white. In fact, there's not a lot out there.

"I don't think it's an issue where (grade alike) is so much better for every district, but it does make sense here, I think," said Amy Erickson, school board clerk.

Erickson was also pushing to begin a community group, nominating Nancy Olson, a no-voter on the last referendum and candidate who ran for school board in the last election, to head it up.

"Better to work with the community and sing Kumbaya all the way to the ballot box than try to retroactively pass a plan," said Erickson.

A big complaint from the community about the last referendum vote (and those previously) was that people felt they didn't have enough say in the plan, that the school board worked alone. Erickson said forming a community group could help ease that feeling.

Superintendent Doug Froke interjected to say that no matter what the board decides to do, they absolutely can't do the same thing they did for the last vote and expect different results. And Board Chair David Langworthy had his own ideas about how to "leverage new information from voters" with another survey from Morris-Leatherman, the company that conducted the survey the board sent out to figure out why the last referendum didn't pass.

"Morris-Leatherman developed a tool to get input on what items on your bond issue the community would support before a referendum," said Langworthy, adding that ten other districts have utilized this pre-referendum survey and all of them have passed their bond issues.

The survey would be similar to the last one, taking another sample group of 400 community members and asking them a series of questions about what they would and wouldn't support come time to fill out a ballot.

"I guess I'm not really for that because I feel like the last one didn't hit enough people. I know one person that it hit," said Board Member John Steffl, adding that he doesn't want to spend any more money.

Steffl suggested sending out a newsletter to every single voter, saying that would give a "true idea" of what the voters want. Though Langworthy rebutted that newsletters have been sent out in the past and many people do not respond.

But beyond disagreement on how to get community input, the board members also couldn't agree on whether to bring another referendum to the table next year or not; Langworthy, Muckenhirn, Erickson, and Board Treasurer Kylie Johnson were looking to start working, while Steffl and other board member Jane Foltz said no.

"We just need to get working on it, and it will happen when it happens," said Steffl, adding that he felt the last referendum was pushed too fast too.

"Ag economy is not very good right now," he said, opting for a quick fix and coming back to voters with another space solution five or ten years down the road.

Erickson interjected, saying the tax credit for agricultural land passed in June, providing a 40 percent property tax relief on farm property for taxes paid on school bonds. "That ain't gonna mean diddly," Steffl shot back. "It's gotta be what we need, and that's basically it right now."

With a majority of the board members looking to start working, though, they agreed to start looking into local architects, forming a community group, and continuing to gather information, hoping to send in a resolution eight months from now.