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Menahga residents raise questions about proposed school addition

Sam Sabin, a senior at Menahga High School, spoke in favor of the district becoming a satellite campus for Central Lakes College. A part-time Post-Secondary Option student, Sabin said she appreciates the opportunity to get college credit while still in a high school setting. (Shannon Geisen/Enterprise)

Voice of the Brave Task Force members, administration and school board members were on hand Jan. 31 to answer Menahga residents' questions about the proposed school addition.

The recommended plan calls for a mix of new construction, remodeling and repurposing.

Superintendent Kevin Wellen reassured the audience that the $29.1 million building project was a modest one, not extravagant. There are three flexible classrooms in case of a particularly large class, "but we didn't build for a ton of extras. We are trying to keep it as efficient as we can," he said.

"I don't know about you, but I've always liked a bargain. If I can get something at a discount, that's one of my favorite things to do," Wellen said. He went on to explain that, "if we build anything, the first $6 million on that building are 100 percent paid by local taxpayers. The next $3 million, the state will pay 30 percent. So for every dollar we put in, the state pays 30 cents and we pay 70 cents. Anything over $9 million, that jumps to 60 percent from the state. On $1 million, it costs local taxpayers $400,000. The state kicks in $600,000. So that to me is very important, because we looked at what we need, not what was the cheapest."

A 20-year loan, rather than 30, he noted, benefits the district because state aid is based on the district's annual loan payment. "If we spread payments over 30 years, we don't get that state aid because our payments were too small."

The district's first annual interest payment — $631,550 — must be included in the bond.

On a $30 million bond issue, 47 percent of total payments will be made by the state.

To lessen the burden on the local tax base, Wellen recommends pre-paying two existing lease levies that are 100 percent locally taxed. If the district paid off these levies, totaling about $1.7 million, out of the district's fund balance, it would save $255,075 in interest. Paying off the 2010 and 2012 lease levies also saves taxpayers' money. The estimated tax impact on a $150,000 home drops from $437 to $344 per year — a 21 percent decrease.

Existing debt service levies will be paid off by 2022, further reducing the local tax burden.

In order to pay for stormwater management, some fixtures and relocating part of the road, Wellen is proposing a second ballot question for an additional $5 million bond. This levy would have a zero local tax impact, Wellen said, because the district would under-levy in another area.

About $700,000 of the second bond would be used to purchase necessary equipment for robotics, milling, welding and medical office tech labs at Menahga High School.

High School Principal Mark Frank and Wellen have been investigating the possibility of MHS becoming a "satellite campus" and hosting some of Central Lakes College's career and technical ed courses. Presently, the school doesn't have enough space for the equipment or college-level classes.

These are high-paying jobs in high demand, Frank said. "We want our kids to have these opportunities and to have a step up on any other district in the area."

If MHS educates students in these fields, Wellen said he hopes to attract these industries to Menahga and increase the city's tax base.

Jeff Schindeldecker, a Menahga business owner, expressed shock at the tax impact to commercial properties. He referred to a mysterious, anonymous letter circulating around town that said a $250,000 commercial/industrial business would pay $1,125 in taxes per year.

The school district did not send that letter, Wellen said, adding that whomever did, took the worst-case scenario which doesn't represent what he'll be recommending to the board nor is it relevant to tax impact.

"That is misinformation," agreed board member Julia Kicker.

Audience members posed the following questions:

Q. Is the student growth within Menahga or coming from outside of the district? Who is this building being built for?

"We are talking the kids who are in the building now," Wellen replied, noting there are currently 100 seventh graders, for example. There are 90 sixth graders.

"This isn't about kids moving into the district. It's about kids moving into the high school."

Menahga School District has experienced a 36 percent growth of in-district residents in the past six years, according to state demographics. Walker School District, where Wellen was previously a high school principal, saw a 36 percent decrease in that same period.

"We are the envy of most districts. The bulk of growth is from within," Wellen said.

Frank suggested the reason for Menahga's growth is that families want to return to their hometown.

Next year's kindergarten class is projected to be 84, said Elementary Principal Jeannie Meyer. She said she is a mother of seven.

"When you think about it, $196 in taxes per year is $16.50 per month or 55 cents per day," Meyer said. "Are our kids worth 55 cents a day?"

Q. How many students graduated from MHS in the past?

Traditionally, MHS averaged about 50 graduates per year since the 1970s, estimated board member Brad Goerhig.

Today — and for the past nine years — the smallest class size is 74.

"We have 24 more kids in every grade, every classroom," Wellen said.

"We call it pig in a python," Frank said.

Q. How many students are bussed in from outside the district?

There are about 240 open-enrolled students, according to Wellen.

"Those open-enrolled students generated almost $2.5 million in state aid," he said, noting that state aid is generated through state income taxes, which everyone pays.

About 100 in-district students go to other school districts.

Q. Does the state aid cover the cost of transporting open-enrolled kids?

"In my opinion, yes," replied Wellen, adding that the district alreadys picks up in-district students at the edges of the district's boundaries.

Q. Could Menahga switch to year-round schooling to ease cramped quarters?

By law, the Minnesota Department of Education won't allow school to begin before Labor Day without special permission, Wellen said. The district would also have to air condition the entire building during the summer. In Minnesota, year-round schooling is a challenge due to tourism and agriculture, he noted.

Q. Are there grants to fund the project?

Grants won't fund construction projects, Wellen said.

Q. Will the district need an operating levy referendum?

For the foreseeable future, Wellen said, even if the district pre-pays its existing lease levies, "we'll have $3 million in the bank. We'll have enough money in the bank to operate."

Class sizes are currently capped at 88, Wellen noted, because it's a manageable number and ideal to cash flow a building.

Q. Will the school board be of "one mind" about the bond referendum?

Wellen said that was a question for board members. They will be asked to authorize the next steps for a building bond referendum at Monday, Feb. 6 "state of the district" meeting at 5:30 p.m. in the high school media center.

Q. Will there be other public meetings?

Yes, as soon as the board decides how to proceed, there will will be meetings at town halls, senior centers, "wherever you tell me you you want to be heard," Wellen said.

Q. The average income is $42,000 in Wadena County. How can taxpayers afford this?

Wellen said he understands that, and doesn't have a good answer for those who can't pay taxes.

"The challenge we have — Hubbard, Wadena, Cass — are some of the most impoverished areas in the state," he said. Nonetheless, he pointed out, Park Rapids built a new school. Sebeka is considering a building referendum.

"Our kids deserve a school," he said. "We're looking for a middle-of-the-road, solid construction so kids walk out with a career. We're not over-building. We're doing our best to finance this thing so you can afford it."

Pat Slifer said she retired to Menahga and she's on a fixed income. She doesn't have kids or grandkids who attend the school and never will.

"You'll have to sell me on this because I don't have a dog in this fight," Slifer said.

Kicker disagreed.

"I think everybody has a dog in the fight because these kids are our future. These our future nurses and lawyers and gas station attendants and road construction workers," Kicker said.

Phyllis Maxwell, a local resident with two grandchildren at Menahga, commented, "Somebody paid for me to go to school. Somebody paid for my kids. This is a perennial discussion."