Flood update: Moose Lake schools look for help to rebuildSen. Tony Lourey says Moose Lake was hit with a “triple whammy” of issues: aging facilities, extremely low tax base and a natural disaster. School officials are asking voters and the legislature to help the district build new on higher ground.
By: Jana Peterson, Pine Journal
Had the Moose Lake school building bond referendums passed in 2004 and 2005, the school district would have had new buildings on higher ground.
Instead, despite the community’s best efforts to keep the school from being overwhelmed by the Moose Head Lake during the June 2012 flooding, the rooms on the lower level of the high school flooded along with the utility tunnels surrounding the school, plus water seeped in and damaged the walls of the attached elementary school.
Still, thanks to very proactive steps by school administration and lots of volunteer labor, school started on time last fall with most of the repairs complete. Only the library wasn’t finished yet; it was awaiting new shelves, which are now installed.
“Everything was functional for Day 1,” Superintendent Robert Indihar said. “I think that’s pretty impressive. We are certainly very appreciative of everyone who volunteered their time to help out.”
Although both schools are repaired and better in some ways than before – with new drywall, carpet and fresh paint – district officials and the school board would like to build new. After all, the high school was built in 1935 with additions in 1954 and a new gym in 1972, while the newest portion – the elementary school – was constructed in 1988.
But rather than asking voters to approve a new building at the current site – which was the intent before the flood – they’ve come back to the idea of rebuilding on higher ground on land the district owns off highways 73 and 10 between Moose Lake and Interstate 35.
Early estimates put the cost of building a pre-kindergarten through 12th-grade school at $33 million, or a grade 7-12 building at $24 million, leaving the elementary school where it is. A vote on a building bond could come as early as May or June, the superintendent said.
However, although voters approved an educational levy in the fall of 2011, Indihar isn’t sure they could sustain the cost of a new school. Neither is State Sen. Tony Lourey.
Lourey says Moose Lake was hit with a “triple whammy” of issues.
“First, you have aging facilities that aren’t meeting the students’ needs,” Lourey said. “Second, you have a very, very low property tax base so the manner in which we fund the building of school facilities doesn’t work. The local property taxpayers simply can’t take on that much burden to support new schools despite the fact that they support their children. And then – third – you have a natural disaster that puts them behind the eight ball.”
Tom Paull, flood recovery coordinator for both Moose Lake and now Pine County, explained the property tax problem in Moose Lake.
“About 75 percent of the land in Moose Lake is non-taxable,” he said, explaining that state and federal properties don’t pay local property taxes. “You’ve got MSOP (Minnesota Sex Offenders Program), the prison, the hospital, school, churches, the Muni (municipal liquor store) and the hockey rink – none of those are taxed.”
Lourey confirmed that he is talking with legislative members from Rushford, Minn. – which is still dealing with building issues seven years after it was flooded and has a low property tax base like Moose Lake – to try to pass some legislation that would contribute some funding to the district so local taxpayers wouldn’t have to shoulder the entire burden.
“We’re not looking for all the money,” Indihar said. “We’re hoping for about half. We feel that the community needs to show support, but it needs to be equitable. We’re in a unique situation with our tax base in Moose Lake.”
Rushford-Peterson Superintendent Chuck Ehler said the district benefitted in many ways from the FEMA-supported repairs following the flood, but it still faces problems with a building “older than the Titanic” that were exacerbated by the flood and the sandy soil the buildings sit on.
Ehler said their district has been pushing for state assistance for some time, but he’s more hopeful now because the two districts have teamed up and hired a lobbyist. As well, a building bond referendum just failed there, with the “no” votes coming in at 60 percent — proof that voters won’t pay for a new building on their own, he said.
“We heard from legislators that they were fearful of setting a precedent,” Ehler said. “We’re saying, ‘In the past, you’ve assisted schools with mold and other unforeseen issues, you’ve already set a precedent. You just don’t realize it.’”
Ehler is hoping more legislators will become aware of the difficult and somewhat unique circumstances facing the school districts — the oldest portion of the Rushford building is 105-years-old and the tax base there is mostly agricultural property — and help the taxpayers in both places pay for a new building.
“I think the two of us together [Moose Lake and Rushford], working to make this case that the state simply needs a more robust response, would be very valuable,” Lourey said Tuesday.
Some would say Moose Lake should instead look into consolidating with a neighboring school district – after all, they already play almost all their sports with Willow River.
Been there, done that.
Indihar said district officials asked both the Willow River and Barnum school districts if they would be interested in talking about consolidation, “with an emphasis on the word ‘talking,’” but both districts declined to even discuss the issue.
Indihar said the district is also hoping to sell more land adjacent to Highway 73.
“It would be valuable land for a developer and [selling the land] would help with the tax base, too,” Indihar said.
The district and city officials are also looking into the possibility of building a new hockey arena on the school district’s land, since the current facility is located in a flood plain and had 40 inches of water inside during the June flooding this summer.
On the bright side, Indihar noted, the school district has received a number of surprise donations from area residents and the district has already been reimbursed for $780,000 of its $850,000 in flood-repair expenses.
“Let’s just say it’s been an interesting year,” he said.