Voters say ‘Yes’ to schools in Esko, Barnum and WrenshallSchool District referendums passed in Esko, Barnum and Wrenshall, although a second ballot question failed in Wrenshall by some 50 votes.
By: Wendy Johnson, Pine Journal
Esko School Superintendent Aaron Fischer admitted he had no inkling of how the district’s dual referendum questions were doing at the polls most of the Election Day on Tuesday. Sometime between 8:30 and 9 p.m., however, he received a text message from one of his board members informing him both issues had passed.
“I was just so pleased that the community came forward to support these issues,” Fischer commented Wednesday morning. “They will provide tremendous opportunities for our students, both academically and athletically. This is a great day for Esko.”
And indeed, the voters of Thomson Township turned out in significant numbers for Tuesday’s election – some 3,107, or 84.06 percent, of registered voters, to be exact.
In the end, they voted 1,896 to 1,172 in favor of increasing School District 99’s general education revenue by $341 per pupil unit for the next nine years. The referendum revenue will be used to finance school operations.
On a vote of 1,793 to 1,266, voters also authorized the district to issue general obligation bonds in an amount not to exceed $2.7 million in order to rebuild the school’s outdated and flood-damaged athletic facilities. A similar, but more expensive, referendum brought before the voters in 2009 failed by nearly a 2-to-1 margin.
“From the feedback I received ahead of time,” said Fischer, “I think a lot of people were feeling really positive how our plans were structured this time around. They believed the school board looked out for the financial issues brought forward and listened much more closely to the feedback this time around to come up with a better plan they could support.”
Fischer was already hard at work Wednesday morning putting together a final timeline for the athletic facilities rebuild. He said the next step will be to formally contract with a design firm and financial advisor, which he said likely will happen at the Nov. 13 board meeting. To date, the district has been working with Larson Engineering of White Bear Lake on preliminary plans for the facility as well as soil testing and budgeting, and Northland Securities of Minneapolis has done all of the financial work.
Fischer said the district’s goal is to break ground on the project in spring 2013, with completion slated for fall 2013. He said there should be minimal interruption to spring sports due to the construction, stating the track team already runs elsewhere, and both the softball and baseball fields should be playable at that time.
“The voters of Esko really came to the polls and supported our kids,” said Fischer. “We are extremely grateful.”
In other school referendums around the county, Barnum voters approved a $1 per pupil referendum for the next five years, with 1,129 voting in favor and 974 opposed. The money from the referendum and the corresponding equity aid generated from the state will be used to help offset the cost of buses, property maintenance, property improvements, curriculum and technology.
“We are very pleased we got the support we needed from the community,” Superintendent David Bottem said Wednesday. “Through this referendum, we will now be able to leverage additional money from the state, which we are not getting otherwise, and I think it’s in line with what taxpayers can afford. Things are tough right now, and this will certainly help out.”
In Wrenshall, voters said “yes” to renewing a five-year operating referendum in the amount of $629 per pupil, with 596 voting in favor of the proposition and 411 opposed. The levy will bring in approximately $200,000 to the district each year for the next five years and will be used to help keep class sizes down, maintain current programming and keep the pool open.
“We really needed to pass this one,” said Superintendent Kim Belcastro. “That was our priority. We did what we could to get the word out, and we had a wonderful parent group who supported it. They did a lot of door knocking and sign waving, and I think we owe them a lot of credit for our success.”
Belcastro said the operating referendum will help guarantee that the school’s current educational programming will get to stay in place for another five years.
Prior to the original referendum funding, Belcastro said the district was forced to cut back its industrial arts and business education programs and combine classes, resulting in larger class sizes. With the advent of the referendum five years ago, the district was able to reinstate the industrial arts program to full time, hire a full-time business education teacher and cut back on its class sizes.
“We’re really pleased with the amount of class offerings we have, especially for a small school,” summed up Belcastro.
She said the district has also been able to return to smaller class sizes, something they are exceedingly proud of for being such a small district.
“Just a few weeks ago, we were able to cut our [33-member] sixth-grade class into two sections, and our first grade has two classes of 13 each,” Belcastro said. “We feel that is so crucial, especially during those early learning years. The renewed referendum funding will enable us to keep all of these things in place.”
A second Wrenshall levy question asking local voters to approve an additional $100 per student narrowly failed, with 550 opposed and 449 in support. The levy would have generated some $30,000 a year to be used toward such measures as purchasing a new pool heater to reduce energy costs, upgrade computer technology, improve indoor air quality in the elementary school, upgrade the school’s recreation building, and make improvements to the football field and track area.
Belcastro said the board will now take another look at those needs, prioritize them and then “do what we can.”