Board could vote on school referendum

The Princeton School Board could decide at its meeting Thursday, Feb. 6, if it will run a referendum this coming May.

That referendum would ask voters to approve bonding to construct a new elementary building for kindergarten through second grade and also add onto and remodel the high school.

If the board does make that decision at tonight’s meeting, it would be following the recommendation it received from the district’s facilities options committee on Jan. 28.

The board would also have to decide the location. The options committee recommended the proposed new elementary school be built either next to North Elementary (grades three through five) or be built on district-owned land about a quarter mile north of the middle school.

The idea of building the new school would be to vacate South Elementary (kindergarten through second grade) and the portables sitting next to it. The elementary’s entire second grade has its classes in those rented portables.

Representing the options committee on Jan. 28 were Kevin Walz, Shannon Arens and Rachel Gillman, with the assistance  architect Vaughn Dierks of Wold Architects and Engineers.

Walz, Arens and Gillman noted how the cost of remodeling and adding onto South Elementary would amount to 80 percent of the cost of building a new school and that the remodeled and added-onto South Elementary would still have shortcomings. Those would include hallways too narrow and classroom sizes that don’t meet state guidelines. Another stated drawback to renovating and adding onto South Elementary would be to continue having a congested parking lot adjacent to the high school parking lot.


High school          proposal

The committee’s recommendation for the high school was to improve the flow and function of the kitchen and cafeteria spaces, add two physical education gym spaces, make locker spaces handicap accessible and modernize the industrial technical spaces.

Dierks estimated the cost of the proposed new elementary school at “a little under $24 million,” but offered no estimate for the costs during the board meeting for the high school proposal. The goal includes getting rid of the two portables at the high school.

Dierks and the option committee representatives noted that the facilities finance committee decided that any new bond referendum should not exceed $30 million. The figure is based on a consulting firm’s survey gauging what size of bond issue district taxpayers would support.


Raising questions

Three people at the board meeting questioned the recommendation or the process leading to it.

The first was Rich Harris, who spoke against the idea of South Elementary becoming “abandoned.”

Harris acknowledged the deficiencies of the 14 units of portable classrooms at South Elementary. But the masonry building that is South Elementary is strong and should “not be abandoned as an asset,” Harris said. “Barring calamity or neglect,” the structure could last a much longer time, he added. With so many urging everyone to reduce, reuse and recycle, alternatives should be examined other than just leaving the building, Harris said.

Another resident, Elaine Philippi, also shared comments.

“I feel the board has more work to do,” she said. She said she has heard “significant concerns in the larger community” about the district’s declining enrollment, and the future of South Elementary and the high school.

School Board Member Chuck Nagle also posed questions, resulting in some heated responses at times from some fellow board members.

Nagle began by saying he agrees something must be done to replace the portable classrooms and then posed his questions:

• When will the portables be eliminated?

• How will the empty classrooms be used (if construction results in the district over-building)?

• How will another facilities project in 10 years be financed?

• When does the School Board begin the debate?

On the issue of the portables, Nagle said, “Teachers are sentenced for life in the portables, but juveniles are released after one year.” Nagle asked if students and teachers are “being held hostage until taxpayers pony up for a new building.”

Nagle mentioned declining enrollment in the district since 2006 and the projection of more decline in the next 10 years.

Nagle next stated that the district’s per-student debt is higher than all surrounding districts, including Sartell and Sauk Rapids, except for Cambridge and Elk River. Nagle charged that if the district borrows $30 million now, then only Elk River will be among the schools he listed who would have more per-student debt.

Nagle said he reached that conclusion by looking at figures on a Minnesota Department of Education website and then doing calculations.

District Director of Business Services Michelle Czech left the board meeting sometime after Nagle’s debt comments and returned with a graph. Czech’s numbers showed school districts’ portion of taxes for 2013 on a property with a $168,500 estimated market value in the Princeton district and 12 other districts.

The tax was $314 for the Princeton district, which was the fifth lowest of the group. The Montivideo, Monticello, Chisago Lakes and Becker districts were, in descending order, lower than Princeton. The St. Francis, Buffalo, Milaca, Cambridge-Isanti, Sauk Rapids-Rice, Elk River, Big Lake, and St. Michael-Albertville districts were higher, in ascending order.

Nagle further claimed that the options committee was assigned to determine the best way to attain a “like new building” and that he didn’t feel other alternatives were seriously evaluated.

Dierks responded that the “like new building” was a comparative phrase used in the evaluation process and not a goal.


Responding to Nagle

Nagle’s comments brought an immediate response from Board Member Craig Johnson when Nagle said he has not heard from anyone in the community who believes that a bond referendum will pass to finance what the option committee is recommending.

“I have,” Johnson fired back.

Options committee member Arens told Nagle that her committee would like to eliminate the portables now and added that the committee members are all taxpayers.

Options committee member Gillman said the committee members will also be going into the community to explain what they will be asked to help finance. The problem with one of the last referendums was that the proposal was to build a “Taj Mahal,” while this latest proposal is one the community can understand, Gillman said.

Gillman responded to Nagle’s concern that if enrollment continues to decline, a new building for kindergarten through second grade could end up with empty spaces. Committee members discussed that and suggested that if that happened perhaps the district’s early childhood students could move into those spaces, Gillman said.