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Rushford-Peterson referendum denied

By Kirsten Zoellner

Fri, Dec 21st, 2012
Posted in Peterson Education

In the Rushford-Peterson gymnasium lobby Wednesday, voters choose whether or not to move the district’s plans of a new, $15 million Early Childhood-Grade 5 facility forward. In a margin of 993 to 658 (60.15 percent to 39.85 percent) that plan was rejected.

The plans have been part of an ongoing project by the district in its New School Initiative. Originally, the district had hoped to construct an Early Childhood-Grade 12 facility at the cost of $29 million, utilizing potential state funding for up to $20 million of that cost. When all attempts to secure outside funding for the project failed, the district shifted its plans to a phased project that would construct the elementary portion of the school first, with a proposed middle and high school in an additional five to seven years.

With the referendum for the phased project now being denied, where does the district go? Many residents that were contacted were neither disappointed nor satisfied, but rather felt “in between” or “torn” both before and after the results were tallied.

Rushford Mayor Chris Hallum, a long-time proponent of the district’s efforts, believes a new school is needed. “It’s how you go about it,” he said the morning following the vote. “I think there were two things that decided this vote. One is the tax burden. The second is that clearly people didn’t support a phased project. The wanted a complete school. The state has to come through. We need to say, ‘Hey, we tried and these are the results.’”

“I always come to the conclusion that there’s really not a right answer,” said Kendra Eide, who had a “Vote Yes” sign in her Rushford yard. “We need to do something, whether remodel or building. What’s the next step? What’s the right answer? I do know, so much effort was put into this. You have to respect them for taking charge and trying.”

Still, others were not surprised that it failed. The referendum would have relied heavily on the farmer’s within the district taxing them not only for their homestead, but for each additional acre. Still, many of them, like everyone else, were torn. “The timing was just bad for people right now,” noted Rushford farmer Richard Anderson. “My thinking is that for now, they’re just going to have to fix up the building.” Anderson was also surprised at margin of the vote. “For now it’s done with, but it’ll be back. Sooner or later we’re going to have to do something.”

Another local farmer, who wanted to remain anonymous, noted that they had voted yes, despite the cost. “Had the referendum passed, my property taxes were scheduled to increase by more than $3,000 a year. Could the type of farm I have bring in more income to cover that? If we could expect good farming weather that would have increased production and good harvest prices, probably yes. There just are not those kind of guarantees in farming! But, I truly feel that we need a new school in Rushford. Some parts are okay and other areas horrible. It would be best to build it all, but with that plan, we need help from the state. It should be forth coming, but the current attitude in St. Paul is negative. We just have to keep working toward a workable solution.” 

Several voters expressed a need for outside help for funding. One local business owner stressed the district has to do something and that the state needs to help. “This is not a yes or no issue. There has to be a way to get it done. It shows a lack of what they’re doing in St. Paul and what they’re doing for education. For small districts with aging facilities, the formula they’ve come up with [for funding] doesn’t work. We don’t have the number people to do this thing right. This brings to light the lack of support in St. Paul and just throws it right back to the legislators. Schools are an infrastructure.”

Board of Education chair Angela Colbenson agreed and was not surprised at the vote results. “The results are what I expected. It was a lot of money for farmers and business owners, so I completely understand why it didn’t pass. However, we are the lowest taxed district in the area. Our constituents don’t have a lot of money. $6,000-7,000 a year from the state toward our school is simply not enough. The debt equalization aid formula is definitely broken. Add a flood in Rushford, and it equals a desperate plea to the state for help.  We just simply need more state help.” As for the board, there are four new members coming on in January. Colbenson hopes they are able to analyze vote results, come up with a new plan, and go back to the voters next year.

Superintendent Chuck Ehler insisted that he won’t give up on being an advocate for the school at the state level and that he’s looking ahead to the future. “In my heart, I knew we would have fortunate to receive enough votes to pass. In hindsight, several things stand out. One is the future of the Peterson school and it’s a serious point. We need to incorporate a Peterson center one way or another. Another is the cost impact. The harsh reality is that our taxes have been low for years in comparison to other districts. We have to make a commitment.”

Ehler would not comment on whether or not the board would come back to the community with another referendum in the near future, but he was adamant about the potential remodeling of the facilities. “If we’re going to fix up the building, we’re not going to piecemeal it. We’re going to do it right, gut it, and fix it; make it last for the next 100 years. We’ll take that back to voters and say, ‘Here’s what you asked for. Tell us what it is you want.’”

The superintendent also cautioned against further frustrations within the community over the issue. “I hope we can move forward and get past this period of frustration. We need to allow our differences to be shared without making them personal. We have to allow us to come together and be respectful of other peoples’ opinions.”

In a joint press release from the Board of Education and district Administration, thanks were expressed to the community. “The residents of Rushford-Peterson Schools have provided us with feedback on the future direction of our school district. Thanks to all those that came out and exercised their right by voting on the referendum.”

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