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Rushford-Peterson Board discusses Old School and New School with the public

Fri, Mar 28th, 2008
Posted in Government

A much-hoped-for Rushford-Peterson facilities grant to buy land, build a new school and refurbish old classrooms will not be included in the 2008-09 Minnesota bonding bill.

Citing state fiscal constraints and competition from districts that "have been at it longer than we have", R-P Superintendent Chuck Ehler told a crowd of 50-60 residents last Thursday evening, "We are sensitive to what the community is currently going through. The school board is not proposing or attempting to move forward with this without other assistance. We have no intention of asking [district taxpayers] for $25-million."

The school board is, however, asking residents to consider the costs and consequences of stopping there, of taking "No" from legislators as the definitive answer to a question many have been asking for a least a decade: Can we replace the Old School with a New School?

Ehler walked the audience through the same short slide show that district officials have presented to area representatives as well as to both House and Senate education committees in St. Paul.

First slide, the Old School. 1906-main-building. 1936-addition. 1957-elementary-wing. 1970-gym-auditorium. Ailing-boiler the size of an aircraft-carrier. A list of mold and air-quality issues long as your arm. Hallways and staircases too narrow to comply with Americans with Disabilities standards. Inadequate plumbing, not enough sinks urinals and toilets. Leaky roof. Stinky crawlspaces. Making matters worse, "the flood exposed structural problems."

Ehler summed-up the Old School punch list in stark terms, "We are functionally unable to provide a quality and safe education."

And the proposed alternative to facility dysfunction? Ehler listed a number of advantages on top of the primary benefit of getting R-P's current 660-students out of the unsafe, unhealthy Old School.

A New School would provide the district with a foundation for long-term sustainability. The proposed "Green Building" on the slope east of Pine Meadows Drive, and rehabilitation of the existing Peterson building, would mean the district can continue to support local businesses with jobs, provide an economic boost to the community and give the community a renewed reason and a new place to "get involved" in school activities.

The New School would move activities off of Highway-43 to a residential neighborhood bordered by a wooded bluff. It would provide parking, green space and continuity with the stadium, track, ball-fields and Creekside Park. It would reduce energy and periodic maintenance costs as well as improve air quality.

Many in the audience, including a couple of former school board members, spoke-up during the hour-long meeting. In general, residents expressed belated support for the attempt to reduce the estimated $25-million district price-tag by asking for State aid. For the time being at least, R-P remains afloat on a deceptively calm school-funding stream, riding in the same leaky tub that carries hundreds of other rural Minnesota districts into an uncertain future.

Estimated cost to upgrade the Old Schools? Consultants put the figure at somewhere between $12-13-million. And the cost to do nothing? Unclear, it went unsaid at the meeting. But there seemed to be an understanding, implicit particularly among proponents, that the cost of inaction - that is, an opportunity-lost-cost - would eventually approach, and very likely exceed, $25-million.

There were opponents. Long-time school-spending critic and former board member, Jon Peterson, criticized the panel for moving ahead with plans to purchase an additional 15-acre parcel, to meet the State requirement for a suitable, approvable, flood-free, contiguous-40-acre building site.

Calling recent board action to negotiate the purchase with Rushford residents Richard and Holly Holle, "real estate speculation," Peterson further stated, "the school should not be in the real estate business."

In an open board session prior to the public hearing, members approved a resolution to apply to the DNR for a grant to partially-fund the proposed real estate purchase. Five-acres of the wooded bluff above what would become the New School site could be used for DNR-supported outdoor activities.

In the end, the way forward was never fully cleared. Attendees applauded the board and superintendent warmly, never openly expressing what must certainly have been great disappointment at not receiving the $20-million facilities grant in the biennial bonding bill.

Rumor is that the State will continue to shift school funding to property owners. And, if Ehler's opening statement holds, the district has no immediate plans to launch a referendum to ask for full-facilities-funding from taxpayers. Debt service contribution for a $25-million building bond would add $533-annually to the property-taxes on a $100,000 urban residence. Board chair John Nitecki urged residents to continue to lobby legislators to support New School funding. Other than that, and buying more land, no New School plans were articulated.

Just where the path to the New School leads remains very unclear. What was clear has been clear, that the worn path to the Old School is becoming a financial dead end.

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