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Rushford-Peterson School Board: Board weighs $25-million new building and renovation plan

Fri, Oct 26th, 2007
Posted in Education

Rushford-Peterson school superintendent Chuck Ehler outlined a referendum proposal to fund a $25-million school building and renovation project at a special meeting of the R-P school board last Wednesday, October 24.

"Tonight," said Ehler to a small crowd of district residents, "I just want a discussion." With that, Ehler ran down the familiar list of maintenance and obsolescence issues plaguing the century-old high school. High cost of heating. Water-wasting plumbing. Poor air quality. Student safety. And since the flood, ancient foundation and other problems hidden under the basement. "The building has exhausted its educational use," he said.

Describing a $1.8-million annual district tax levy for a fully-locally-funded project as "unacceptable," Ehler sketched a plan to ask the State for a one-time, $15-million grant. "In return, we will ask for no State debt-aid."

"Why now?" asked board member Roger Metz. "We have to answer the question, Why would the State help us now? Why, as a taxpayer, would I want to do this now?"

One person uttered the phrase, "Rushford is on the map," alluding to the surge of aid coming into Rushford, which might indicate that this is a good school-funding opportunity.

Said one attendee, "We would do a disservice not to take advantage of this opportunity. I was disappointed that after the 2001 referendum the topic was just dropped."

Six-years-ago, district voters sided 4-to-1 against an $18.4-million new building referendum. At the time, voters parsed the issue of raising taxes into a number of arguments, countering claims made in support of a building tax levy piled on top of a recently-approved school operating levy. Opponents cited declining enrollment and a school district with a disproportionate number of citizens living on fixed incomes. Farmers complained they would pay an unfair share on agricultural land. Businesses made similar claims.

Ehler explained that his $25-million proposal, without a $15-million grant from the State, would require a property tax increase on the order of $535 for a $100,000 house. But if a 60-40-percent State grant agreement were doable, $15-million-State, $10-million-district, the tax increase on a $100,000 house would shrink to less than $250-annually.

Ehler's proposal would utilize the "cornfield" proposed for the 2001 building, as well as 17-acres to the east and an adjacent site providing an additional 11-acres. The current middle school in Peterson would be retained, and a portion of the $25-million would go toward renovation.

Board member George Ingram stated that he believed the 2001 referendum failed because of the cost. Board chair John Nitecki cited three more reasons. 1) Recent operating levy charges appeared for the first time on property tax bills. 2) Planners had not given consideration to the Peterson facility. And 3) There were no plans for disposition of the old school.

The 90-minute-plus discussion moved back-and-forth over quantity issues, too-much, too-little, this-and-that. District residents present seemed to be there to support moving forward with establishing a Facilities Committee to develop plans, lobby legislators and sell local voters on the referendum. One participant said, "A new building is a draw for enrollment. People looking to move into the area look at the school and ask, 'Is this where I want to raise my kids?'"

Nitecki reminded attendees that flood damage and recovery loomed large in the community. "Am I comfortable going to businesses to ask them to dig in their pocket? I can't speak for them, but it's going to be a very difficult proposition. We have to be realistic."

School Board member Dan Munson countered, "Be realistic. We need a new building. Ask businesses, pay $1000 now or $3000 later?"

Ehler asked for 2-board members to help him prepare a presentation for the regular November meeting. Nitecki, Munson and Metz volunteered.

Before ending, Nitecki stressed that community input, for-or-against, would be critical to the process. He urged district residents to speak up, contact board members, make their views of the $25-million new-building proposal known.

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