The Park Rapids School Board had a special meeting Monday in the high school auditorium. Its purpose was to discuss the failure of the “PRoject 309” school bond referendum in the Nov. 3 election and the future of the school improvement project.
School board chair Sherry Safratowich invited each member of the board, as well as board member-elect Dana Kocka and the three principals, to share their thoughts and feedback from the community about why the bond failed, and whether the school district should try again with the same plan or come up with a different plan.
Superintendent Lance Bagstad also read from four letters he received, all saying that the bonding plan was good and that some in the community were surprised that it failed.
By the end of the meeting, Safratowich said she detected a consensus that the school district should make another attempt to gain voter approval for a school bond in a special election in April or May 2021.
Meanwhile, board members’ and school administrators’ comments shared common themes, suggesting a further consensus as follows:
The bond failed by a margin of about 1 percent, perhaps because of poor timing in conjunction with a turbulent presidential election and economic insecurity during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The proposed school improvements are needed, in order to make space to teach a growing student population and meet state standards for classroom size; to provide better security at school entrances; and to give grades 7-8 access to hands-on, career-readiness experiences.
The timing is crucial, with record-low interest rates making it possible to finance school improvements while putting a minimum additional burden on taxpayers.
The Vote Yes committee needs to make more effort to communicate these points to potential voters.
Board member Gary Gauldin expressed regret that he wouldn’t see the bond approved before he leaves the board at the end of the year. Nevertheless, he congratulated the board on how far they have come during the four years they have spent developing the project.
“The momentum is there,” he said. “It’s something positive to work for.”
Gauldin suggested providing more specifics about updating the high school auditorium and combining the school improvements and the bus garage into a single bonding question. The November ballot had a separate question, which also failed, about building a new bus garage on school property.
“I think that’s a big factor in listening to people,” said Gauldin.
Century Middle School Principal Shawn Andress stressed “two pieces” from the feedback she has received from her school community: First, “it’s not if we’re going to do this but when, sooner rather than later, and the second one was the layout of the question on the ballot.”
Andress said she loved watching middle school students looking at the diagrams of the project concept and hearing them debate it, beginning to think about politics from the point of view of the parents and taxpayers they may someday be.
Jason Splett, an educational consultant with ICS, told the school board about the different requirements for re-submitting the referendum depending on whether the special election is held April 13 or May 11, 2021.
Because the state does not allow the same questions to be on the ballot within 180 days of being voted down, Splett said, the April option would require either different questions or a different number of questions. Also, the school board will need to recertify its polling places for a special election in 2021.
Splett noted that the school board’s review and comment must be submitted to the Minnesota Department of Education by Jan. 13, 2021 for an April referendum, or by Feb. 10 for the May election.
Financial adviser Gregg Crowe with Ehlers, Inc. presented an updated financing schedule for the bond, if approved in the spring. Apart from the bond levy starting later, he said the tax impact on property owners will likely remain about the same.
The exception, Crowe said, is that the share of agricultural property taxes paid by landowners will be lower, as the state contribution to the ag-to-school tax credit program continues to grow.
Splett noted that the schedule includes approximately $900,000 in additional project funds, which he suggested using to address concerns about the Century School roofs.
“The district’s done a great job of building up their LTFM (long-term facility maintenance) funds to be able to handle a large portion of those roofs,” he said, “but it’s not going to cover it all.”
Regarding polling places, Safratowich suggested that the high school would work better than the Frank White Education Center for social distancing and flowing voters in and out. She also suggested having additional polling places in Osage and Lake George.
“I don’t think it would be wise for us to just do one polling place and have it here,” she said, recognizing that many voters would have to travel a long way.
Jodie Zesbaugh with Ehlers added that the range of polling hours allowed by state law is from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. at the maximum end, and from 5 to 8 p.m. at the minimum. She said it’s up to the school board to decide, based on how much they want to spend to have election judges at each precinct, but the hours need to be uniform between polling places.
“At this point, it’s pennies in the ocean as far as paying for election judges,” said Safratowich. “We just need to do what’s right for our community and move forward with this.”
No action was taken, since the meeting was a workshop for discussion only.
The school board’s next meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. Monday, Dec. 7 at the Frank White Education Center.