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Menahga School task force endorses $29.1 million building project

Out of five possible building/remodeling designs, the Voice of the Braves Task Force recommended this preliminary concept to the Menahga School Board. (Graphic illustration by Foss Architects)

Menahga School's strategic planning community task force, called Voice of the Braves, offered its proposed solution to the district's space shortage.

Their preliminary plan calls for a mix of new construction, remodeling and repurposing.

The task force comprises local residents, staff, administration and two school board members.

They met three times in late November and early December to review the Foster, Jacobs & Johnson Inc. (FJJ) facility assessment report in depth, identify space needs and examine five design concepts. The pros and cons of each design were evaluated. FJJ engineers analyzed the task force's suggestions, providing financial costs and local tax impact information. Menahga School principals and FJJ consultants also reviewed the favored design. Their suggestions eliminated $1.75 million in potential costs.

Having reached consensus, Voice of the Braves presented their recommendation to the school board on Monday.

Their preferred design involves a new, two-story high school addition with more classrooms, a stage/gymnasium, new kitchen and commons area. Through renovation, there would be more music and art space, wrestling would move from its current location in the basement to the main floor, and a new tech ed area would house a woodworking shop and auto/metal shop. The preliminary plan adds 31 classrooms, including those for family and consumer sciences, ag/horticulture, Project Lead The Way, business and a flex lab for laser engraver and 3D printing. Additional student and staff restrooms are included in the design as well.

A 1950 portion of the school would be demolished and replaced with an elementary school addition for preschool, Head Start and kindergarten classrooms. (Pre-K classes are currently held at a leased location due to lack of space.) A second addition incorporates a new elementary media center. Remodeling of existing elementary school space would provide music, art and science classrooms. The current serving kitchen would also be renovated.

"A lot of this was included in a previous referendum, but because of our growth, we need more," said Elementary Principal Jeannie Weyer. For example, a 2014 referendum sought to build 16 classrooms, now 31 are required.

The estimated cost of the project is $29,125,598. That does not include furniture, fixtures, equipment, parking lots, street relocation or storm water management.

Two of the five preliminary designs were eliminated because they proposed either a separate, new high school or elementary school. The task force agreed that multiple, detached buildings were not in the district's best interest.

"The committee members felt very strongly that one of the things that make Menahga special is that we have everybody under one roof. We can utilize our older students to mentor our younger students," explained Middle School Principal Ann Wothe. "We felt that having a stand-alone site took away from that community feel that we have."

Separate buildings also would complicate food service, she noted.

Four concepts were also rejected because they didn't resolve congestion problems or incorporate flexible space if a fourth or fifth class was needed in the future.

Creative financing

Justin Day, a Menahga banker and parent, reviewed the financial aspect of the proposed building project on Monday.

"Any bond issue under $6 million, the entire amount is put on taxpayers in the district," Day said. For a bond issue between $6 and $9 million, the state provides debt service equalization aid of 30 percent. The remaining 70 percent is local levy.

Finally, for bond issues over $9 million, 60 percent is covered by state aid, 40 percent by local taxpayers.

A long-term loan "is not beneficial," Day said because state aid is based on the district's annual bond payment. A smaller yearly payment spread out over more than 20 years results in less state aid.

"It would cost our taxpayers more across 30 years than spreading payments over 20," Superintendent Kevin Wellen advised the school board.

The task force ran different scenarios, calculating state aid on a $25, $30 or $35 million bond with a 20-year term. State aid increases, respectively, to 43 percent, 47 percent and 50 percent.

On a $30 million bond, the estimated tax impact on a $100,000 residential homestead is $245, payable 2018. A $100,000 commercial/industrial property would pay an estimated $512 per year.

To lessen the burden on the local tax base, Wellen proposed pre-paying two existing lease levies that are 100 percent locally taxed. If the district paid off these levies, totaling $1,703,644, out of the district's fund balance, they would save $255,075 in interest. There would be a one-time penalty of about $17,000 for pre-payment, Wellen said.

Paying off the 2010 and 2012 lease levies saves taxpayers money, he said. The estimated tax impact on a $100,000 home drops from $245 to $196 — a 21 percent decrease.

In order to pay the estimated $3,410,000 for furniture, fixtures, parking lots, and other site improvements, Wellen suggested adding a second question to the ballot. If the first bond passes, voters would be asked to pass a $3.4 million levy that's structured so it wouldn't impact local taxpayers.

"I think I'm out of creative financing ideas now," Wellen joked.

Exceptional growth

Task force members reviewed the district's current demographics and enrollment projections.

Menahga ranks as the 12th fastest growing school district among the Minnesota's 321 school districts.

Within a 50-mile radius, Menahga ranks No. 1 in student population growth. There are a total of 38 school districts in this region, including Bemidji, Detroit Lakes and Pequot Lakes.

When compared with 72 school districts in a 75-mile radius, Menahga still ranks third in growth.

"A lot of these bigger cities aren't growing as fast as Menahga," Hans Grangroth, a task force member, told the school board Monday.

Based on Minnesota Department of Education formulas for assessing "adequate" educational space, Menahga falls short by 111,000 square feet.

Kindergarten through sixth grade should total 89,752 square feet. Menahga misses the mark by 14,443 square feet.

The school also needs another 96,494 square feet to meet MDE's guidelines for grades 7 through 12. Menahga's current square footage is 64,827 — the recommended size is 161,321.

Ten similarly sized school districts, such as Hawley, Wadena-Deer Creek, Pillager and Bagley, average 288,544 total square feet. Menahga has 158,148.

"We are definitely feeling the impact on space because of the seventh grade class," reported Dawn Rossbach, a Menahga art teacher and task force member.

As of December, there were 97 seventh graders. The class is the leading edge of a large bubble of students that will move into the high school. Behind the seventh graders are 90 sixth graders and 74 fifth graders — nearly double the size of this year's 52 seniors.

To accommodate the larger grades, classes sizes were increased and courses shortened. Students are losing not only quality, but also teacher contact and content, Rossbach said.

"Families are coming home to roost," said High School Principal Mark Frank of the influx of students.

Last year, Wothe said, 19 children from three families that moved back to Menahga enrolled at the school.

Grangroth noted that, other than the roofs needing attention, the existing facility is in good physical shape. Deteriorating sections of the roof will need to be replaced because they've exceeded their life expectancy.

"For the most part, this building is well-maintained. A very hardy school," he said.

Referendum history

Four previous bond referendums have failed in the district. The first one, a $8.5 million bond, failed in 2009. Two bond requests in 2010 failed by very narrow margins—49.9 percent "for" and 50.1 percent "against" in 2010. The last bond referendum, at $15.7 million, was in November 2014. It failed 792 "no" votes to 755 "yes" votes.

A draft timeline suggests a May 9 special election, but first the board must finalize the scope of the project and determine financial details. The district also must submit material to MDE by Feb. 8 for the commissioner's review and comment.

"If the bond fails, is there a plan B?" asked Board Member Durwin Tomperi.

"We're down to bare bones. What programs do you want to cut?" Frank asked. "P.E.? Fine arts? That's where we're at." The media center is the only remaining viable room that could be reconfigured into two or three more classrooms, he noted.

Superintendent Kevin Wellen said classroom sizes would have to increase to 25-30 students as well.

"That's the only way you can free up classroom space," he said, adding the classrooms are already undersized. "You keep packing them in like sardines."

"If you are a parent, what is the quality of education that you want your kids to experience?" asked Rossbach. "It's the kids that lose."

Interest rates are still low, but construction costs will only keep rising, Frank said.

"I think this is the right amount. This is going to address the needs we have today," he said of the $29.1 million project.

The Menahga School Board's next regular meeting is 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 17 to consider the task force's recommendation and to authorize the next steps for a building bond referendum.

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