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R-P moves new referendum forward

By Kirsten Zoellner

Fri, Jun 20th, 2014
Posted in Peterson Education

Options regarding the new school initiative and a November 4, 2014 referendum were recently presented to the Rushford-Peterson District School Board. Gary Olson, of Ehler’s & Associates, and Dean Beeninga, of architectural firm ATS&R, presented the district with a preliminary look and general obligation bond financing, estimated payments and tax levies for the proposed new debt, and early analysis of tax impact for the issue.

The district is seeking a new, $37 million plus, pre-K through grade 12 facility on the Eiken Drive property north east of the district’s sports complex. A referendum for a $15 million, pre-K through grade 5 facility was defeated in December 2012, following years of the district lobbying, unsuccessfully for $20 million in state aid through bonding bills. Following further pressure on lawmakers, a new change in debt equalization aid has renewed the district’s initiative.

The new bill could potentially assist the district with an estimated 55 percent of the funding. Designed to assist districts that have suffered natural disasters, the legislation could net R-P $1.6 million in aid. Through the original legislation, the district would have seen less than $200,000 in aid on its previous referendum project. “It would have been significantly reduced,” noted Gary Olson. “We looked at grant programs, but the legislature likes formulas and they didn’t want to set precedent, which is why they set up this formula. Legislators won’t have to pick to give money to district A, but not district B. It’s a way to provide you help.”

With the special legislation, aid is calculated by state average of taxable market values. The percentage of aid is also based on the size of the project and there is a threshold that much be reached. If the project is cut back, the district could receive less aid. According to Olson, if the project were reduced by $2 million, it would not reduce tax levy proportionally.

The district would need an estimated $38,165 bond for the project. Three uses of the funds include allowance for discount bidding ($183,192), which could give underwriter’s further flexibility for best bidding and legal and fiscal costs ($118,665). Also included is capitalized interest ($275,000), which will assist in keeping 2015 and a portion of the 2016 tax levy equal over time, due to the district being ineligible for aid the first year of the 20-year term.

Commercial properties will be taxed at higher rate than residential and agricultural taxes are complicated in impacts. A website will be available for property owners to determine their actual tax impact. Agricultural property owners will have access to a 800 number and email, where tax impact will can be determined per parcel. Agricultural property owners will need to provide the county and parcel ID and will then be contacted regarding the specific impact. “It’s the only way to get numbers really right, to know the exact impact of a yes or no vote,” added Olson.

Once the state publishes updated information on adjusted net tax capacity later this month, numbers for state aid and the project can be more fine-tuned, potentially shifting 1-2 percent, and the website and phone number published for the public.

“Is the money from the state guaranteed?” asked Taylor Peterson. “I talked to Jeremy Miller about debt equalization, got copy of the bill, and looked at the stipulations and conditions regarding damage and aid received from the state and federal governments, who determines who qualifies. I wonder how we qualify.”

Superintendent Ehler noted the amount of damage, in excess of $500,000, did get state and federal dollars, but that it’s his understanding that the district does qualify.

“The state formula will do calculations,” responded Olson. “It’s not guaranteed, but more guarantee than you have seen. It’s indexed to property values, which is has not been in the past.”

Once the district passes a resolution to create review and comment for the state department of education, work on the budget, program, and schedule can continue. “We’ll hit a campaign hard for six weeks. You’ll have to prepare hard before you hit it hard. In August/September we’ll get out the vote, have the “Yes” committee instill some excitement, recruit and organize, host community meetings, and presentations to local groups. The best success you can have is to be as transparent as possible,” noted Beeninga. “Three community groups have studied this in-depth and the recommendation was to invest in new facility. Sometimes it takes one vote to make people realize you’re serious about it.”

Two local residents were on hand to offer comments regarding the impending referendum. Lori Peterson, who is encouraging residents to vote against the referendum, stated that verbal bashing of those of differing opinions has already begun. “People opposed to the referendum have just as much right to their opinion. We should be able to voice our opinion without having to worry about job security, our businesses, or how our kids are treated at the district,” said Peterson. “I encourage the district to convey to referendum advocates that we can agree to disagree and encourage the district to distribute fair and accurate information.”

“This is step one and I’m excited for step two. I’m happy you didn’t take no for an answer,” stated Andy Prinsen regarding the district’s push for legislative change in the debt equalization formula.

The district is also moving two other recent issues forward. A recent issue has prompted the district to take further action regarding a school volunteer policy. The policy was originally adopted in November 2013, but updated are being proposed on volunteer guidelines. The first reading of the modified policy was approved at the Monday, June 16 board meeting.

According to that document, any volunteer who accompanies students off campus or who is responsible for working with students on campus outside the regular classroom structure will be subjected to a criminal background check. These background checks, per proposed policy, need only to be done once. The background checks, costing $15 each, will be done at the district’s expense. Information will be kept confidential. School officials will review the results of the check and the superintendent will deal directly with the volunteer regarding any concerns. Volunteer approval by the school board will be needed only in the case of long-term, supervisory, and overnight chaperone or tutors. Casual volunteers, who will be required to maintain student contact only in large groups with district staff in direct attendance, may be granted approval by an activity coach, advisor, supervisory staff, or teacher.

The second issue, recently brought forward to the district and board members, as well as noted by letters to the editor in a local publication, relates to unauthorized and unsupervised use of the district facilities.

Board member Taylor Peterson was made aware of students, children of district staff, and certain alumni utilizing the building perhaps without consent. “This has been going on a long time and it raises quite a few concerns,” noted Peterson. “What about liability if someone is injured while they are not supposed to be in the school? How many keys are there and who has them? An end should have been put to it a long time ago.

Superintendent Ehler noted that unauthorized use of the facility is trespassing. “How would that hold up in a court of law? We should have put an end to it then. Why wasn’t it? If keys were stolen and copied, why was there no investigation or charges pressed? Sooner or later, someone is going to get hurt and it is going to be the school’s fault,” continued Peterson.

Ehler maintained that students are allowed approval if district staff is in the facility working. Board member Valerie Howe asked if a listing of who has keys is kept and suggested the district could put a stop to it by having keys turned in and all the locks rekeyed. Board member Angela Colbenson went a step further suggesting the district could utilize key fobs, ensuring a limit on who can be in the building and when, as well as a digital log of entry.

“I’ve seen it being used this way for the history of Rushford,” added board member Julie Koop. “It’s great to have the opportunity, but if we can get some sort of formality it would be great.” The district will review the issue in an effort to improve who is in the facility, while allowing its open use to district residents under supervision.

The next regularly scheduled board meeting is Monday, July 21, at 5:30 p.m., in the high school biology room. However, a special board meeting to continue discussion on some topics will be held Tuesday, June 24, at 5:30 p.m. The public is encouraged to attend.

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