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Board considers two-question referendum

Voters may be asked to approve two separate referendum questions to help resolve the Cloquet School District’s facilities issues.

At a special working session of the full Cloquet School Board on Monday afternoon, members heard from consultant John Huenink of Kraus-Anderson Construction regarding the district’s needs and how they balance with a scientific phone survey done last month of more than 300 registered area voters.

That survey indicated 53 percent support for a project which does not exceed an added $150 per year to the district’s taxpayers on a $130,000 home — but that support is within the poll’s 5.5 percent margin for error.

“The last time we went to the voters in 2009 (for an operating levy), we were within the bounds set by our consultant, but the economy tanked and people didn’t vote for it,” Superintendent Ken Scarbrough said. “I’d like for us to have some room to operate this time around.”

Huenink estimated the cost for replacing the Cloquet Middle School at $31.5 million without certain amenities strongly suggested by citizens during recent public meetings.  When other elements such as demolition of the existing Middle School building and relocating the ECFE, ECSE and Community Education programs to new homes are added in, the tab rises to $34.5 million.

Add in new high-priority security items like an alarm system at Churchill Elementary (which does not currently possess one), a new entry system for Cloquet High School and a more secured entrance for Washington and Churchill Elementaries and another $1.1 million goes on the total.

There are also $2 million in needed improvements Huenink listed as “priority one” items around the district including a new fireproof stage curtain for the high school auditorium, installation of energy efficient lighting at all buildings and other needs — to generate a base project price tag of $40.8 million.

That’s well within the $150 annual tax range of the survey — in fact, it checks in at $122 for that $130,000 home — but the project at that price tag doesn’t include two amenities mentioned prominently by residents in public meetings.

Not included are an eight-lane swimming pool with diving bell or a new auditorium/concert hall. The addition of those two items would add about $12 million to the total cost — which would push that $150 annual figure hard.

“We looked for ways to trim the project to make it more acceptable,” Scarbrough added. “Originally we had $9 million in the total for educational improvements like a new food service area and gym at Churchill and a new cafeteria and expanded library at Washington, but those came out and saved about $6 million.”

Part of the problem the district faces is that even though the middle school gets the publicity for being aged, Cloquet High School is the district’s youngest facility — and it’s 44 years old.

Washington was built in 1957 and Churchill in 1962, and both are starting to show their age in addition to being jam-packed with students.

“There are times when it snows, where it snows inside the building because the windows aren’t sealing,” Washington Principal Connie Hyde said.

“We need to do something,” CMS Principal Tom Brenner told the board.  “If we’re going to be there (in the existing school), the HVAC has to be replaced. Sometimes you can wear a jacket in one part of our building and a T-shirt in another. The boilers are so old that when we fix them, the parts have to be manufactured. I’m amazed they still run.”

Of course, what it boils down to is what the taxpayers are willing to bear.

“I’m in favor of going forward at $52 million,” board member Ted Lammi said. “That is something we could achieve.”

Yet the board did not approve a plan on Monday because of the possibility of needing a Capitalized Interest Fund (CIF), depending on when any referendum affecting the district is passed. A CIF allows the district to pay interest on its bond obligations before levied funds are actually available to the district.

A November referendum would eliminate most or all of the need for such a fund while waiting until after the new year for a special election might well require it. That fund could need as much as $1.7 million of bond proceeds to stock it — and that’s money that can’t be used for building.

“That would mean a $52 million project would have to be bonded at $54 million,” Scarbrough said. “That’s stretching it.”

Business Manager Kim Josephson then suggested, “if that’s the case, you might want to consider two questions on the ballot,” one to fund needed construction and the other to provide the option for an auditorium and pool.

As for the election date, board member Jim Crowley favored November.  “It’s going to be a high turnout election because of the elections being contested and we want as true a cross-section of the community as we can get,” he said.

Consultant Huenink noted that November elections tend to be more heavily politicized.

“You get more characters in those elections,” he said. “They say we’re going to get this or that politician and by the way, they aren’t going to vote for a school levy, either.”

Lammi noted that school referenda are one of the few ways frustrated taxpayers have to protest their level of taxation.

“It’s the only thing they can vote against, and that’s too bad,” he said. “It’s not like they get a referendum on their state or federal taxes.”

As a result, the board wants to hear from its consultants again regarding the CIF issue before drilling down on a final plan.

“What the survey showed is that the community will probably support a plan if it’s reasonable,” Scarbrough said. “But what are our priorities? The question is going to come down to that.”