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Board sets date for referendum on new middle school

Members of the Cloquet School Board set Tuesday, Feb. 10, 2015, as the date for the school bond referendum at Monday’s Board meeting, by unanimous vote.

Superintendent Ken Scarbrough explained to the board that they needed to set the election date in order for the Minnesota State Department of Education (MDE) to proceed with its Review and Comment of the district’s facilities’ plan, which depends on voters passing the bond referendum.

The final facilities plan as passed by Board members at the June meeting included building a new middle school with an eight-lane swimming pool plus relocating early childhood programs and community education services currently located at the middle school. Also included were increased security measures, including remodeling of some facilities as well as funding for deferred maintenance for district facilities.

The bond referendum will include two questions for voters, with Question One asking voters to approve approximately $48.9 million for all the above-listed projects except an 800-seat auditorium, and Question Two asking for approximately $6.9 million for an 800-seat auditorium.

On Monday, Board members also approved plans to refinance capital debt from 2005, which District Business Manager Kim Josephson said could save the school district between $500,000 and $600,000 over the life of the loan if rates remain low until January, when the sale would close.

“So I’ll see a reduction in my taxes?” asked audience member Jim Mallery.

Josephson said the debt levy would decrease if the district pays less interest.

However, if voters approve a bond sale and the district increases its debt, taxes will go up. Under the final plan adopted in June, the first year tax impact on a $130,000 home in the district would be approximately $123 under Question One and $147 if Question Two also passed.

Mallery and Rick Colsen — who both filed to run for school board the next day, joining three incumbent candidates on the ballot — questioned Board members and Scarbrough at length about existing school debt, making the point that they did not think it was fiscally responsible for the school district to consider adding new debt (and raising taxes) until it had paid off the old debt.

Mallery and Colsen also accused Board members of a lack of transparency because a Pine Journal newspaper article about the budget earlier this summer hadn’t included the district’s existing debt, which, according to a Pine Journal story from April, totaled $27.2 million with outstanding principal balances of $22.8 million through Dec. 31, 2013.

“In eight years [the time it would take to pay off current debt], if you go to build, you’ll probably be looking at a 50 percent increase in cost,” Scarbrough said, questioning whether it would be fiscally responsible to delay building a new middle school any longer.

As Board members and the two audience members went back and forth about the merits of paying off all debt, as well as delaying major investments to old buildings that might not be around in 10 years, Scarbrough made the point that all the questions were worthy of discussion … after the district gets the Review and Comment from the MDE.

“I promise we will have more public meetings,” Scarbrough said. “This is a very important dialogue to have.”

The following people filed by the deadline Tuesday for the three Cloquet School District four-year school board seats:

  •  Dan Danielson (incumbent)
  •  Ted Lammi (incumbent)
  •  Dave Battaglia (incumbent)
  •  Richard Colsen
  •  James W. Mallery II

The General Election will be Nov. 4.