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Guest commentary on Rushford-Peterson School facilities

By Brett Kues

Fri, Jul 25th, 2014
Posted in All Commentary

So here we are having a beautiful summer in southern Minnesota and facing another referendum in the fall. It’s only late-July and the community is already polarizing and lines are being drawn. People are coming out and making cases for and against a new school. Sadly, others who can’t make a compelling argument one way or the other are just attacking the person they disagree with. Personally, before I can say whether I would vote yes or no to the school, I need a lot more information. I cannot understand how a group of people can be so blindly in favor of a $38.1 million school or against a referendum they know so little about. Hopefully we can all hold a civil conversation, and maintain a community bond while agreeing or disagreeing.

Like most of the community, I have been in our school and see the need for repair. Personally, I think the school is too far gone for basic upgrading and have resigned myself to the fact we will need to pass some sort of referendum if only to fund improvement and repairs. However, unlike the school board, I think our current schools can be saved. I think our high school façade should be salvaged and we turn the old school into a show piece for other communities to envy. Alas, the school board, and some very vocal supporters, do not agree. They are convinced we need follow the path set by districts such as Caledonia, and abandon the old school for something new and modern. The reasoning is as school districts continue to consolidate, the people who make the decisions about which schools stay open and which towns lose their school will base their decision on the quality and age of the facility. I would hope that there are many factors in this decision, but have to agree that a district with no school debt and an old facility will be one of the first cut. If that happens, we will be assessed according to whichever district we merge into. It was pointed out to me that a community without a school ultimately withers on the vine and dies.

As I consider this latest referendum, it has become obvious to me that the district will be forcing us to go through this every two years until they get a new building. Think I am wrong? I asked directly if this gets voted down will the district hear our voice and understand that we do not, as a community, want a new school. I was told in no uncertain terms, “no”, the board would not hear that message, but rather, it would hear that changes to the plan would need to be made so the issue could be brought back up in a new referendum. I was told that Chatfield took seven votes before they got their new building. I think even the most anti-school of us must admit the district has the upper hand in this and those who are against a new school are waging a losing battle because it is only a matter of time until our school is uninhabitable, and we will be forced to build new or merge into another district.

During discussions today, I pointed out my perception that the current school is not being adequately maintained. Mr. Ehler took issue with this and pointed out many of the items they have spent money on in recent years. Many of the items he pointed out were critical items caused by the flood. It was pointed out to me that the money the school is currently spending on maintenance of multiple old facilities was money that could be going toward teachers and services.

Personally, I would have been impressed if they told me it was money that could be used to ensure a new building would never be allowed to get to the same condition of the current facility. In the maintenance conversation, it became evident that many of the school’s issues are looked at and weighed and if it is not critical, they are shelved or minimally repaired in the hope that a new school soon will be here. Unfortunately, Mr. Ehler’s claim that he has spent significant amount of money on maintenance is not supported by the information on the schools webpage. Listed under the future facilities meeting recap is a list of all the maintenance done to our school. If you have not looked at it, I suggest you do. I will say, compared to other superintendants over the last 45 years, Mr. Ehler’s statement is accurate; he has made a sincere effort to maintain what he inherited. But his efforts are much like that little Dutch boy from “The Legend of Hans Brinker” who stopped a disaster by sticking a plump finger in the hole…. Laid out on the recap, in detail, is a list of the maintenance and the dates performed. Sadly the data shows the last year any significant amount of improvements were made was in 1969. THAT IS 45 YEARS AGO! Regardless of what your position is on a new school, it is beyond me how there is not a public outrage that our school has been allowed to get to the point of no return it has reached.

During the last referendum, I posted a letter urging Mr. Ehler to go back to the state and try again for funding. I am pleased to hear this was done and was successful. However, there appears to be confusion as to the amount of funds our community will receive, and even if the funds are guaranteed. The state contribution for a new facility is based off the 123B.53 DEBT SERVICE EQUALIZATION PROGRAM. This act basically allows districts to receive state aid for new schools to keep local tax assessments as low as possible. The amount received is different for every district based on property value, but according to Greg Crowe – Ehler’s Financial, the state average is about 6 percent of all debt service is paid by state aid. Under this act, a district can have up to 20 percent of its debt relieved. The funding we will be getting is based off this but the statute has been revised to assist communities recovering from a natural disaster. This revision is key, it will allow our district to receive around 55 percent of the school’s yearly payment under the Debt Equalization Act. It is important to note that this money is not guaranteed, but past history is the best indicator of future behavior, and past history says that we will get the funding we expect. Since there is no language in the statute or the revision that states a district must take advantage of the natural disaster relief within a certain time after the disaster, history also indicates that if we vote no for this referendum, the money should be there if we decide to build a new school at a later date. If we pass this referendum, our tax assessments will not be for the full cost of the school ($38.1M) plus interest. Our debt for the new school will be cut in half if not slightly better by the Debt Equalization Act. This will keep our assessments lower than the state average, but high enough to stress some of our citizens. It is unfortunate that if we repair our current facility, there is no help available, but if we build a new school, the state will pick up a fair share of the tab. This tidbit is enticing, and brings our cost for a new facility down on par with the cost to repair our existing structures.

If this referendum is passed, the assessment is still a problem. Recently, I read that over 50 percent of our school district is on free or reduced lunch. I asked how the school board expected its struggling members to afford the assessment. The answer was simple: It is the landlords who are assessed. As many of the low income families do not own the property in which they live, they will pay nothing toward the new school. For the unfortunate families who are low income and own their home, the district expects them to make the sacrifice. As a general rule their sacrifice will be limited because the lion’s share of the cost will be shouldered by the small businesses and farms in the area. This is potentially a disaster for the town. It does not take a genius to see that if farmers in the area pay more taxes, they will have less money to give raises to hired help, and less money to spend on equipment and local services. The people providing the equipment and services will then have less money to pay help, or to spend in town. The businesses, many operating with thin margins, will have no choice but to raise prices for goods and services if they wish to reward their employees, or expand. Some businesses may even be forced to close their doors. Earlier I wrote of a comment which stated “a community with no school withers and dies on the vine,” it can also be said about a town that has no services and high taxes.

In a previous letter, I pointed out some national and Midwest averages for schools of similar size. According to the studies at that time, the cost for our school should be significantly less. I asked if $38.1 million is the absolute lowest achievable cost. I have to say while I am sure the proposed building is size appropriate, I am equally certain we could build it for less but they don’t want to present us with that option. I am convinced we will never be able to build the district’s “preferred” school for less than we can right now, but am hopeful that if this gets voted down, the district might rein in its thinking.

There are several reasons, beyond state assistance, given by the board to pursue a new building instead of fixing the current structure. One argument has been made that the current school does not sit on enough property to handle the needed expansion so the school can meet today’s standards for square footage per student. Another argument is traffic on the busy highway is dangerous. To meet the square footage standards, the board has decided to build one large building on the Eiken Drive property. Building on Eiken Drive may allow the district to meet today’s needs, but is this small property a long term solution if there is (highly unlikely) a population boom how will the district respond? To me the worst issue with placing a new building on Eiken is traffic. If the board thinks Main Street is busy and a safety concern, wait until they move all the students into one facility with only one street to and from. Compounding the traffic problem is the actual location of the school right on the corner. I can hardly imagine the challenges for people to navigate the area during dismissal when cars will be lined up on both sides of the street making it a challenge for drivers to see a safe distance ahead, and for teenage drivers to pull out of the parking lot into the congestion. Compound this with four months of snow and ice and we have a recipe for chaos. Highway 43 may have issues, but egress and snow removal is not one of them. is not one of them.

Another item to consider before voting yes is what is to become of the old properties. I personally find it upsetting that in one breath we are being told that the buildings are too far gone to invest in, and next we are told they will have a usable life for investors. Before I even consider voting yes, I personally will still need to be presented with a plan to maintain the properties until they are sold, or be presented with a demolition plan so the land can be sold. Personally, I think both plans are appropriate. I think there should be a window, from the time the district moves into a new facility, for the buildings to be sold with a time limit for the new owner to make improvements. If the selling window is not achieved, a demolition plan should go into effect. There is nothing in the current referendum to finance this.

I would like to thank Mr. Ehler and John Linder who were kind enough to meet with me so I could ask some questions and get some answers. Our conversation was genial and we all agreed that it would be wonderful if the entire community could have an intelligent discussion about the benefits of a new school and the concerns over the cost without the anger and emotion. In all there are many arguments for and against a new school, each of us has to consider the issues and benefits and vote for what we think is best for the community not for ourselves.


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9:21:56, Jul 28th 2014

RFDvolunteer says:
Thank you Brett for a good article. I hope people will respond positively and not resort to their usual silly attacks. hopefully people will think before they vote.

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