Moose Lake takes school referendum vote to the peopleIt’s a road the Moose Lake School District has been down before. Next Tuesday, May 21, the district will seek a $33 million bond referendum in support of the construction of a new school for students in early childhood through 12th grade.
By: Wendy Johnson, Pine Journal
It’s a road the Moose Lake School District has been down before. Next Tuesday, May 21, the district will seek a $33 million bond referendum in support of the construction of a new school for students in early childhood through 12th grade. The school would be built on a virtually-floodproof 165-acre hilltop site on the south end of town on land already owned by the district.
School Superintendent Bob Indihar said he feels confident the district has done its job in getting the necessary information out to the voters regarding all aspects of the proposal prior to next Tuesday’s vote.
“We’ve been about as open as we can be,” he stated.
Two other referendum proposals, one in 2004 and another in 2005, failed to get past Moose Lake voters. Last year, the district was just preparing to seek support for the construction of a new school on the existing site when the June flooding turned the tide.
Due to the overflow from Moose Head Lake, the rooms on the lower level of the high school flooded along with the utility tunnels surrounding the school. Water also 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.
Indihar said the existing school is still in need of approximately $12 million in repairs and upgrades, including such high-ticket expenses as a new roof, new heating and ventilation systems, new electrical systems and updated interior finishes.
“It would feel better to put that money into a new building than try to patch up the old one,” he said, citing smaller-than-average classrooms, out-of-date science labs and lockers that are non-compliant with current Title IX requirements, as well as grounds that are too limited for safe parking and traffic flow and security concerns over the way the building is set up.
Indihar said the board feels the time is right for a new school, with a favorable construction market and low bonding rates. He also stated the district has qualified for $7.2 million in debt equity from the state to help relieve some of the tax burden from district residents.
And yet, Indihar admits that residents’ concern over the tax burden of the bonding proposal is likely the greatest obstacle to be faced in next Tuesday’s election, since the tax base in the district is approximately 75 percent non-taxable/public lands. In the community informational sessions held by the district, he said many who came expressed worries over what it would mean for their pocketbooks.
“Many who came to the meetings were ‘vote no’ people who had a great concern over the tax impact, why we need a new school and what we are planning on putting in it,” said Indihar. “Others, however, said they saw the need [for a new school] and were willing to help pay for it.”
A chart on the school’s website shows that the tax impact of the $33 million bond referendum would be $138.38 for a $50,000 residential homestead, $331.01 for a $100,000 homestead, and $582.40 for a $150,000 homestead.
Indihar said district leaders welcomed the opportunity to meet with folks on both sides of the debate.
“We had some very straightforward conversations,” he said. “I think the thing that really drew people to the meetings was the fact that if they brought along their parcel number, they could get the actual tax impact on their property.”
Earlier this year, the district was hopeful that a $20 million bond proposal submitted to the legislature might provide a large chunk of the funding for the new school, but with the end of the current legislative session looming, Indihar said he fears the proposal has only a remote chance of passing at this point. He added that the city of Moose Lake applied for a reallocation of the some of the state flood money in hopes that it that might go toward the construction of a new school on a site outside of the flood plain. No news has yet been received on that measure.
The current high school was built in 1935 with an addition in 1954 and a new gym in 1972, while the newest portion (the elementary school) was constructed in 1988.
Indihar said that if the referendum passes, the plan is to begin identifying specific plans for the new school right away, with an eye toward having construction completed by fall 2015.
If the referendum is defeated, there will be maintenance needs that will have to be addressed in the current buildings, and district officials said a future referendum may be necessary to address those needs after the district’s operational budget for emergency repairs is exhausted. Indihar said he would also plan to be at the legislature “quite a bit” to address the inequity of how different school districts in the state are able to go about getting bonds.
Either way, he said, “We have a lot of work to do. Our goal is to get a new building on the hill, and we’ll wait and see if we’re successful.”