The Park Rapids School Board discussed options for moving forward with the school district’s facility improvement plans at a special meeting on Monday, April 26.
Chair Sherry Safratowich sought input from school board members, Superintendent Lance Bagstad, ICS educational consultants and others as to how to carry out the goals of the district’s strategic plan despite two bonding referendum defeats, April 13 and last November.
Bagstad explained that the concept for the improvements was based on specific goals in the strategic plan that the district developed with community input during the past three years. For example, the goals included opening up space for more hands-on learning aimed at developing career skills.
Meanwhile, Jason Splett with ICS reminded the board that consultants assessed the condition and adequacy of the facilities; interviewed staff and students; held numerous community listening sessions and meetings with civic organizations; and commissioned a survey of likely voters.
Why did the bond fail?
Board members reported a variety of concerns that they believed might be related to the bond’s defeat, from the low turnout to inadequate communication with voters.
They reported receiving feedback about the polling locations being too far from home, people not voting because they assumed the bond would pass, and misinformation published in the newspaper.
Someone reportedly asked why voters were only given one plan to vote for or against, rather than a choice between two plans. Bagstad said state law only allows school districts to put one plan up for vote, except for follow-up questions with extra options.
Glenn Chiodo with ICS said challenges with connecting with potential voters and getting the community to participate in meetings are a common theme in school bonding projects.
Where to go from here?
Board members discussed looking again at financing options that do not require voter approval, at least for some of the school improvement priorities.
Safratowich suggested that by doing parts of the project with board-approved funding sources, they might shrink the size of the bond needed to finish the project by as much as $15 million and this might be easier for voters to accept.
Splett said these funding sources include Long-Term Facility Maintenance (LTFM) monies, an existing levy for deferred maintenance projects; energy and operational savings from replacing equipment with more energy efficient items; spending general fund dollars; an abatement bond, to fund parking lot improvements; health and safety LTFM, to improve indoor air quality by replacing sub-standard air handlers; and a lease levy, which can be used to finance small-scale construction of new educational space.
Splett and Bagstad warned that due to the different requirements for each funding type, the tax impact on property owners may be even higher than for issuing a bond – for example, because the Ag2School tax credit would come off the table.
A concern was also raised about waiting too long to run the bonding question again. Kathy Henry with Citizens National Bank explained that the current proposal was structured to minimize the tax impact of taking out the new bond.
With the new bond phasing in as the previous bond, to finance construction of Century School, rolls off, she said landowners would only see an average $10-per-month increase in school property taxes, and they would continue at about the same level.
“I don’t know anyone who can’t afford $10 a month,” she said.
However, Henry hinted, if the school’s existing bond is retired before voters approve a new bond, the district would have to ask for a much bigger increase – from zero to the full amount needed to service the new debt – and this could be more difficult to sell to the voters.
“We built a really good plan,” said Bagstad. “We put it out there. It’s still a good plan, aspects of it. How can we continue to still work the plan, even with the circumstances that we’re in right now?”
Safratowich obtained a consensus of school board members that they should discuss using the financing options Splett had described for board-approved action, for example, to move eighth graders to the Frank White building and shift the pre-K programs from Frank White to Century School.
However, she acknowledged that some renovations would be needed at Frank White to make this work. Saftratowich voiced concern about investing too much money improving a building that is likely to be demolished in a few years’ time.
Bagstad agreed, citing an incident some years ago when a school facility in Osage received significant improvements, only to be closed a few years later. He called this a mistake the Park Rapids Area Schools would not want to repeat.
Safratowich identified some other top priorities, including correcting the pickup and drop-off mess at Century and securing school entrances.
Splett said Ehlers financial consultants will model the tax impacts of various funding scenarios for board-approved improvement projects.
Bagstad discussed obtaining information about registered voters in the school district, to help them better understand the demographics they need to reach with information about the project.
Chiodo stressed the importance of obtaining buy-in from school staff and students’ families, calling it the “internal vote,” and explaining in a positive way how the proposed improvements will improve education for the students.
The school board agreed to add a work session for further discussion of these issues after their next regular meeting, scheduled for 6 p.m. Monday, May 3.