Moose Lake throws hat in the ring for state school fundingLast Thursday, State Senator Tony Lourey of Senate District 11 and Representative Mike Sundin of House District 11A introduced companion bills in the Minnesota State Legislature to secure $20 million in state bonding dollars toward the construction of a new Moose Lake School.
By: Wendy Johnson, Pine Journal
The Moose Lake School District is once again seeking to “build its house on higher ground” following last June’s devastating flood damage – but this time with a new approach.
Last Thursday, State Senator Tony Lourey of Senate District 11 and Representative Mike Sundin of House District 11A introduced companion bills in the Minnesota State Legislature to secure $20 million in state bonding dollars toward the construction of a new Moose Lake School.
Despite the community’s best efforts to keep the school from being overwhelmed by the Moose Head Lake last June, 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.
Since that time, the district was successful in securing some $800,000 in funding through the Federal Emergency Management Act (FEMA), allowing the Moose Lake School to open its doors in time for the school year last September. But despite new drywall, carpet and fresh paint, administrators fear that the foundations of the buildings may be compromised in ways they are not yet aware of.
District officials and the school board have long made it known that they would like to build a new facility. 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. Bond referendum proposals in 2004 and 2005 failed to get past district voters, but the district was preparing to go back to the voters once again to seek support for the construction of a new school on the same site – that is, until the flood hit.
Now, rather than asking voters to approve a new facility at the current site, they’ve come back to the idea of rebuilding on higher ground on land the district owns off Highway 73 and County Road 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.
District officials realize that passing such a referendum would once again be a tough sell with voters, since the tax base in the district is approximately 75 percent non-taxable/public lands, making the burden of a referendum for taxpayers almost crippling – particularly since many are still seeking a way out from the effects of flood damages
An alternative idea took root when Moose Lake Superintendent Robert Indihar was having a conversation with Rushford-Peterson School Superintendent Chuck Ehler one day. Much like Moose Lake, the southeastern Minnesota school district was subjected to flooding in 2007, causing significant damage to the 106-year-old structure. A recent referendum failed to pass with voters, leaving the district’s plans in limbo.
Indihar and Ehler soon realized how similar their two districts are in the challenges they are facing. The idea of launching a two-pronged initiative to secure state bonding money for new schools simply made sense, given the extreme conditions and aging buildings the districts have in common. Fortunately for both, their local legislators agreed, and they put together a bill to request bonding money from the legislature that would secure $20 million for each.
“I have bi-partisan support for the bill, with Representative Greg Davids of House District 28B signing on as well [on behalf of the Rushford-Peterson District],” said House District 11A Representative Sundin in an interview this week.
Sundin said District 11 Senator Tony Lourey has authored a companion bill in the State Senate, but both acknowledged that it could be an uphill battle to push it through.
“It is unclear at this time, even with very favorable interest rates, how much of an appetite the legislature has for a bonding bill this year,” admitted Sundin. “The Moose Lake District is saddled with a high concentration of public land within its borders that shifts an added burden to the private homes and businesses. That fact doesn’t change the need for safe, clean, and dry schools in that community.”
Even if the bonding proposal should pass, Moose Lake taxpayers would be expected to pick up the additional $13 million it would take to build a new school. District officials state they are prepared to kick off a referendum campaign as early as this spring.