The Houston School Board held an extended Q & A session following a board meeting at a special meeting July 20. Public comment was allowed as usual, with a three-minute limit during the meeting as well.
Tom Weber from SiteLogiQ and Ryan Fetters from Baker Tilly attended the meeting to help answer questions regarding the referendum.
Board member Arlin Peterson brought up that people who were trying to vote by absentee ballots had not been able to get anyone when they called the school. Absentee voting is available at the school district office (at the high school building) from 8-4, Monday-Friday.
Steve Zmyewski commented on the fact that three of the five board members who had voted for the referendum were not at this meeting. (Mimi Carlson, Niccki Johnson, and Mark Swenson were absent.)
Zmyewski stated that he’d heard very little about the referendum until the recent mailers went out; he felt such mailers should have gone out in March and been followed by more mailers. Zmyewski wanted to know why the process wasn’t opened up for public input sooner. Norlien replied that usually school board meetings are not well attended by the public. Richard Erdmann added that there were also two open houses for the public.
Josh Norlien responded that the board put in many long hours on the project. Norlien also stated that information obtained from a public survey had been positive. Many of the residents in attendance stated they’d never heard about the survey. Some felt no one reads papers any more; others felt that older people don’t have access to the internet. The school had attempted to reach people using both methods. Tom Weber of SiteLogiQ shared that there was a 10% response rate for the survey which is considered a good, valid response.
Ray Faber asked about the voting process, noting that “maintaining the integrity of elections is paramount.” He asked who the judges were (and was given the names of the judges and was assured the judges were trained by the county), if the judges were district employees (they are not), and if the votes would be tallied by hand or electronically (electronically).
Faber also noted that if the referendum passes, his taxes will rise by 56%.
Terry Munson asked for the brick and mortar student numbers. The answer was 415, a number that has been staying level or dropping slightly in recent years.
Stacy Botcher commented on the short time (82 days) that Houston spent working on the referendum as she pointed out that Lewiston Schollmeier has spent two years working with the public on their referendum.
Larry Gaustad opined, “I just don’t think we can afford it!” Gaustad also asked if the vote fails, will it be brought up annually? Both Peterson and Erdmann commented they were not in favor of voting on the subject over and over.
According to Fetters of Baker Tilly, the state of Minnesota will pay 42% of the costs through the Ag2School Tax Credit. Fetters pointed out that Houston Schools will receive a lot of debt equalization aid as well. He estimated that the tax burden would actually be about half of the referendum amount.
Justin Zmyewski asked if there were any projections on how long the elementary school will last. (There were none.)
When asked if there would be more in-person classes added, the answer was no.
Concerns about the community residents and businesses being maxed out with taxation were brought forward.
Both Norlien and Peterson said they voted against the referendum because they felt the timing was wrong. Richard Erdmann pointed out that construction costs will continue to rise and codes requiring more expenses will continue to be added.
Peterson noted his concern that people will not know where to vote. The polling will only take place at Hurricane Hub, the former Catholic Church building. Three townships have designated the building their polling place as well.
The board stressed that it is now up to the citizens to decide whether they personally can afford the referendum and if it is worth it to the school. They encouraged all to vote on August 8.
The school prepared an eight page document answering questions from the previous meeting and posted it on the school web page.
During the regular meeting, resident Stacy Botcher addressed the board, asking them to consider hiring Dale Moga, head girls basketball coach as the AD. According to Botcher, Moga would be a perfect fit for the position; she questioned the leadership and character of the other candidate Botcher also questioned the wisdom and safety of the entire administrative staff leaving two students in charge of the district office while they went to lunch in Lanesboro.
Steve Zmyewski asked what had happened to the fund balance left by former superintendent Krin Abraham. He stated that he felt the board’s refusal to have a direct dialogue with the community showed its insecurity; he felt they have failed to communicate with the public.
The board appointed election judges for the upcoming referendum and set the hourly pay for those judges at $15.00 an hour. The board also approved the staff/student/parent handbooks for the new school year as well as the crisis plans.
The final dissolution of the agreement with HVED was officially voted on with the board agreeing unanimously to dissolve the agreement and no longer be a part of HVED.
Superintendent Mary Morem shared that the solar project would be starting next week.
The next Houston School Board meeting will be held in the high school media center August 3 at 6 p.m. The public is welcome to attend.