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Survey shows community support for new middle school, pool

Sufficient voter support exists to pass a school building referendum of between $40 million and $50 million, according to the results of a scientific poll presented to the Cloquet School Board at its Monday night meeting.

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Stacy Childers of Springsted, Inc., presented findings in a working session prior to the meeting. The poll surveyed 301 registered voters in all five of Cloquet’s voting wards plus Scanlon, Brevator and Perch Lake Township between April 23 and April 27, and has a margin of error of plus or minus 5.5 percent.

Respondents were asked to indicate their level of support for varying potential tax increases as part of any potential referendum to replace the Cloquet Middle School.

The survey indicated 53 percent support for a tax increase of $150 per year for a home valued at $130,000. Superintendent Ken Scarbrough noted that such a tax increase would raise revenue of between $40 million and $50 million.

Support rises to 63.8 percent if the tax increase is reduced to $125 per year for the same valued house, and drops to 41.9 percent if the tax increase is increased to $175 per year.

“We recommend that the cost of the bond be set at or below an annual cost of $150,” Childers told the board, noting that voters must be fully informed of both the need and benefits of that proposal if a referendum of that size is to pass.

The 53 percent figure for a $150 annual increase indicates that passage of such a referendum might well be very close, as it falls well within the poll’s margin for error.

“The things people have indicated that they want in our public meetings might not fall within that figure,” Scarbrough said. “If it turns out that we need to reduce the size of the project by $5 million or $10 million, we’ll have to figure out how to do that so a referendum can be passed.”

In response to the findings, Scarbrough noted that a building project has other needs besides expanding elementary school space and replacing the middle school.

“We have traffic control to deal with, district-wide storage, and other needs,” he said. “We would like the chance to talk that over.”

The survey found a solid base of support for replacing the middle school in general, with 62.5 percent of respondents favoring replacement in what is known as an “uninformed benchmark,” or a question posed before details of the proposed project were given to respondents. Some 16.9 percent were opposed and 20.6 percent had no opinion.

Once an “informed benchmark” question was asked, support for a building project rose to 69.4 percent, with 15.9 percent opposed and 14.6 percent undecided.

Perhaps curiously given the base level of support for building, nearly 37 percent of respondents graded the quality of the district’s facilities at “A” or “B” level in the survey, and 15.3 percent of respondents said they would not vote for any tax increase for any reason.

The survey also asked if inclusion of certain items in the project would increase support. The greatest level of support was indicated for building new elementary classrooms (74.8 percent); replacing the middle school (70.8); repair or renovation of the middle school (70.1); additional learning space at the high school (69.1); and creating safer entry points at the high school (67.4).

The five options attracting the lowest level of support were to modernize the middle school at half cost (54.5 percent); renovate at existing locations (51.2); creating a new food service area and gym at the high school (50.8); replacing the sod at Bromberg Field with an all-weather surface (48.8); and expanding the student commons area at the high school (42.8).

A new swimming pool, which was indicated as a priority item by many members of the public at meetings, attracted support from 56.1 percent of respondents. The question of building a new or expanded auditorium, which also received extensive support at meetings, was not asked to respondents.

The survey also asked respondents their thoughts on both the quality of education in the district as well as its financial management. Nearly two-thirds of respondents — 64.4 percent — gave the district an “A” (17.6 percent) or a “B” (46.8 percent) in terms of educational quality, with both figures exceeding the national average. However, both of those figures are down slightly from a similar survey conducted in 2011.

Respondents also gave the district good marks for its financial management, with nine percent scoring “A” and 29.9 percent scoring “B.” However, 33.9 percent said they were unable to evaluate the district, the largest scoring area of that question.

And finally, 65.5 percent either strongly agreed or agreed with the question that the district can be trusted to spend additional tax dollars wisely.

In response to the findings, board members noted that the city of Cloquet’s ongoing planning process may still change the district’s thinking on certain items.

“I hear a lot of support for the idea of putting police on the site,” board member Dave Battaglia added. “The people I’m talking to are really interested in that.”

A meeting of the full board is scheduled for 3 p.m. May 27 to review findings and formulate a full proposal to go to the Minnesota Department of Education.That meeting is open to the public.

  •  In other board news, members heard from the district’s independent healthcare consultant, Paul Peterson, regarding health insurance rates for next year and steps to comply with the Affordable Care Act.

Peterson said that health care costs will rise by 12 percent for next year, but that the district is getting off a bit easy because of the way its management contract with Health Partners was negotiated.

“There was a second-year rate cap negotiated with Health Partners for 12 percent in the second year,” Peterson said. “Utilization of health services was at 138 percent of premiums for the last year, which could have led to a much higher rate increase.”

Peterson said he is working with Health Partners on ways to lower costs and is hopeful that solutions can be found.

“If you spend 90 percent of premiums on actual service, standard medical inflation would result in a rate increase of about 7 percent,” Peterson told the board. “So perhaps there are ways to lower costs.”

The pending Health Insurance Transparency Act, which is expected to pass Congress this year, mandates that large employers must solicit sealed bids for health insurance every two years. With that in mind, the board agreed to solicit bids for consultants when Peterson’s contract expires in September. This will allow for the possibility of local bidders. Peterson is based in the Twin Cities.

  •  Also, the Cloquet Educational Foundation presented its annual report at the meeting. Lorna Mangan noted that the foundation paid out over $57,000 in grants for various projects over the last year and its endowment fund now stands at over $1.5 million.
  •  Also, the district released the names of its four finalists to replace Robbi Mondati as principal of the Cloquet Area Alternative Education Program (CAAEP) next fall.  Alphabetically, they are: Kenneth Alexander, Tower; Steve Battaglia, Cloquet; Todd Lee, Minneapolis; and Jennifer Mitchell, Akeley.

Mondati will move to Cloquet High School in the fall, where she presently serves as assistant principal. Interviews for the CAAEP principal position will be held during the first week of June.