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R-P approaches city prior to referendum

By Kirsten Zoellner

Fri, Nov 30th, 2012
Posted in Rushford Education

What the new Rushford-Peterson Elementary School will look like if the referendum passes. Graphic provided

Likely the biggest topic in the community in recent days, R-P district superintendent Chuck Ehler and board representative Greg Smith addressed the city council this past Monday about the upcoming December 19 referendum vote. Along with a presentation highlighting the preliminary plan of the new $15 million elementary facility, the duo discussed several frequently heard talking points including issues discussed earlier in the night, in Peterson, at the first public referendum forum.

“We’re trying to be sensitive,” stressed Ehler. “We’re not building the Taj Mahal here. We’re trying to build a viable, functional facility that meets our needs now and in the future.”

The plan entails a new 69,000 square foot building situated just northeast of the district’s Niggle Athletic Field which would house the 300 students in grades K through 5, plus the 86 children currently in early childhood classes, with room to grow. According to Ehler, R-P is the only district in Fillmore County with gaining enrollment in the last three years. He hopes a new elementary will draw younger families into the community. “There is a future here in Rushford-Peterson,” he stressed.

One of the biggest issues with the New School Initiatives is what will happen in Peterson. When the districts consolidated in 1990, the elementary and high school students were placed in the Rushford facility while middle school students were placed in Peterson. The facility now needs a new boiler, windows, flooring, and ventilation, which could cost over $1.2 million to remedy. Should the referendum pass, the district will retain ownership of the building and the parcel of land it sits on, but adjacent land goes back to the city of Peterson for $100. It will be vacated, repurposed, and likely sold. “The school district is not interested in maintaining three facilities,” noted Ehler. “We are working with Peterson to find a collaborative, cooperative use for it. The options are wide open.”

Losing the use of the Peterson facility is not favorable with all, as Ehler noted from the night’s earlier public forum. When questioned about the anticipation of losing students, he acknowledged that some indicated they would send their children elsewhere should the district move out of Peterson. “Some of those fund balances of other schools were built on the backs of R-P. The money followed the students who open enrolled there. I’m disappointed in the law that allows districts to bus students right from the community, right out of the district,” added Elher. The state dollars for the student may go to another district, but tax dollars for a referendum will stay within the district. “You’re gonna be paying taxes here,” he stressed. “I’ll be saddened and disappointed if they [go elsewhere].”

It’s also hard to determine what the outcome of savings to the district will be. Without knowing the reuse of the Peterson facility, the district won’t see the biggest savings for 5-7 years, when it hopes to begin Phase 2 of the initiative, the construction of the middle and high school facility at the new location, and the massive Rushford facility is also vacated. Ehler believes it makes no sense to stay in that facility. Foundation movement has led to plaster coming off ceilings and walls, brick walls calcifying and crumbling, and more. “When do you get to the point where you stop putting money in it?” he questioned. “It’s older than the Titanic and you know where that sits.”

Another question that’s been posed by the public is why the similarly-built Rushford Lutheran Church is not seeing the same decay. “There’s not the same amount of activity. Also, TLC has not always been the case over here,” responded Ehler. “When I came here there wasn’t one roof vent working. We invested and fixed it. There were no eave troughs and the water funneled down the sides of the building. There was black mold from the foundation to the top of the first floor walls. We fixed that. Now all surface water goes into the storm sewer. I want to go on record for what’s been done during my tenure; for people to say we haven’t done anything is baloney. We have.”

“We have to think long term. We have to look down the road in this situation. It’s a step in the right direction,” added Smith. “We can’t continue to use the Band Aid approach. Someday, the taxpayers will have to make a decision if they want to do more or not.”

Councilor Roger Colbenson, a staunch opponent of raising taxes questioned whether or not the district would utilize new technologies for the new facility. While the district and board aren’t ruling anything out, they have received preliminary costs estimates for geothermal at an additional $947,000, with a 25-year turn around on savings recoupment, and solar options at a whopping additional $1.5 million. It is anticipated, but not definite, that as much surface water runoff as possible will be reused with underground storage. The facility will take advantage of as much natural-light as possible, with large windows, including a row elevated along the center of the roofline. A nod to the natural beauty of the area is also expected with exposed timbers inside and out, as well as large stone columns.

Surprisingly, another often-asked question is why the district is bothering with a phased approach. The district’s earlier plan had called for the building of a $29 million early childhood through grade 12 facility, with the hopes that the state would contribute $20 million to the cause. After pushing for inclusion on various funding but being denied, the district board decided to move forward with the phased plan, hoping to show the state that the community was behind the New School Initiative and potentially garnering financial assistance from the state in the future. The district knows the community can’t build the complete facility on its own. “We can’t financially saddle our tax payers with that,” responded Smith. “Take the tax impact amounts and double them.”

“We’re not insensitive to the community. We’re also aware of the poverty level in Fillmore County, if we can’t do this, we can’t do that. It would blow us out of the water,” agreed Ehler.

“You need to do something. If this is not the plan, then tell me what the plan is,” echoed Ehler. “It’s not fiscally prudent or responsible to continue to do nothing. That’s part of the problem, nothing has been done. You’ll always have some that are resistant to change. The board is very progressive right now. If it doesn’t pass, we’re not going to tuck our tails and run. You still need to do something. $15 million is a lot of money, I can’t deny that. But, I’m not giving up.”

“We don’t want to see taxes raised, but it’s good to see investment in the community,” added Smith. “If we get voter approval, our board will dive in to work within the money. The homework has been done; the reality is we can do it now or we can do it in ten years and pay more.”

“I trust you guys to be doing the right things,” said Councilor Vern Bunke. “We’re not short on ideas. We’re short on money.”

The preliminary presentation and tax impact brochures are available through the district office or online for viewing at: r-pschools.com. Online, click the “New School Initiative” tab on the left side of the screen and then the desired document at the bottom of the subsequent page. Additional information can be found at voteyesr-p.org.

Approximate tax impact statement brochures have been mailed to property owners within the district. Those wanting to know the exact impact for their property can call Ehlers’ Financial Services – Education Team at 1-800-552-1171 or email mnschools@ehlers-inc.com. Please have your parcel ID numbers ready.

R-P staff and board representatives will be meeting with businesses December 5, at 6pm, at Stumpy’s Restaurant in Rushford, in the lower level banquet room.

A second public forum regarding the referendum is scheduled for Monday, December 10, from 6-8pm, in the Rushford elementary cafeteria. The public is encouraged to attend.

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