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Moose Lake school plan takes shape

Little by little, the vision of a new Moose Lake school began to emerge Monday night — a modern, sprawling, one-story building, with a single main entrance, security doors, passive solar panels and grade levels separated by public spaces. The vision became a sharper reality as Superintendent Bob Indihar and representatives of ARI architects, Boldt Construction and Ehlers Financial described the work that has been done on it thus far.

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But it was obvious that not everyone in the room could embrace the vision just yet.

The event was the first public meeting on a proposed bond referendum that would finance the construction of a brand new K-12 school on an entirely new site, located on land owned by the District just off Highway 73 and County Road 10. And though the District has, in the past, proposed — and been denied — five different bond referendums, this one has an attractive new twist.

Indihar called attention to special legislation passed by the Minnesota State Legislature last session that would provide some 60 percent of the funding for the project.

“This is a big deal,” Indihar told the audience in the high school auditorium on Monday night. “We are one of only two districts in the state to receive this special funding due to the flooding that occurred a couple of years ago. We owe a lot to Senator [Tony] Lourey and Representative [Mike] Sundin for working so hard to get this through.”

Indihar said of the total $34.7 million price tag for the new school proposal, the state’s contribution would be $20.3 million, with the local contribution set at $14.4 million.

“We learned from voters that tax impact was the reason for the failure of the last referendum,” said Indihar. “This plan should take away some of those concerns from last time.”

Jodie Zesbaugh of Ehlers Financial agreed, calling this opportunity “unprecedented.”

“State Equalization Aid normally supports approximately 3.4 percent of a project for most districts with high debt or low population wealth,” she said. “Here we’re talking almost 60 percent for Moose Lake.”

Zesbaugh went on to explain that since this would be a bond referendum and not an operating referendum, the amount taxpayers would pay toward the building project varies. For residential homesteads having a market value of $100,000, the cost would be $191 annually for the next 20 years. For the owner of a commercial business of the same market value, the cost would be $400 annually.

Zesbaugh went on to explain if it hadn’t been for the special legislation granting significantly greater support to Moose Lake, local taxpayers having a home valued at $100,000 would have been facing payments of $403 annually instead.

“That demonstrates the value of what everybody who put such hard work into this legislation did for you,” she said.

Indihar outlined why the current school needs to be replaced, pointing out such elements as aging infrastructure, corroded pipes, electrical and air handling issues and roofs that need replacing.

“Most of the issues are things you can’t see,” he said, adding that the cost to repair the 80-year-old building would be “significant” (estimated at $14.48 million) — nearly the amount, in fact, that it would cost residents to replace it.

Indihar went on to say that a new building would “right size” classroom space. He explained that the current rooms are approximately 750 square feet, while the recommended size is 900 square feet.

He said handicapped accessibility is also badly compromised in the current building, saying there are staircases “everywhere” and the hallways are so narrow it’s sometimes difficult for more than two people to pass.

“It would be chaos in an emergency,” he commented.

Indihar said the current school building also has numerous safety issues, including 13 entry doors and no main entrance.

“People can enter the building without being seen,” he pointed out. “That’s a problem. Also, most of the school has to be left open during after-school activities, since many of the public spaces are only accessible at the ends of hallways.”

In addition, Indihar said, parents currently drop off students at the same spot where buses drop them off, creating unsafe congestion in the mornings and afternoons.

The proposed new building would feature one main entrance, according to Indihar, so visitors must enter through the main office. Public spaces such as the gymnasium would be grouped in such a manner that classroom spaces could be locked-off after school hours. Buses and parents would have separate drop-off locations, and handicapped accessibility would be enhanced through a one-story floor plan and wider hallways, with all facilities up to code.

The building would also include energy-efficient lighting and more efficient heating and air-handling systems, which would include passive solar panels to help preheat the outside air and reduce heating costs.

Indihar pointed out that by building the new school at a new location, it would also remove the threat of flood damage.

“That’s the big reason we received this special funding,” he said.

During a question-and-answer period that followed the panel’s presentation, many questions were raised and comments made by the audience, some of them followed by brief bouts of applause.

One person asked what would be done with the current school and land if a new school is built elsewhere. Indihar explained three different parties have inquired about the current building, and added that money is included in the bonding amount to demolish it if it is not sold by 2018.

Another asked if the current operating levy would go away if this new bond referendum is passed, but Zesbaugh said it would remain in place until the 2020 school year.

Others questioned the pedestrian safety surrounding the proposed new school location, since it’s along Highway 73. Indihar said the District is planning to expand its Safe Routes to School initiative to explore the possibility of adding safe walking and biking routes along that corridor.

One person questioned why only a practice football field is included in the new plan. Indihar said the district is in greater need of a track and that it would make the most sense to put a practice football field in the middle of the track and continue to utilize the stadium field in Willow River for football games.

Still others challenged the expense of a new school, saying it would be prohibitive for those on fixed incomes and questioning why they should have to help pay for it if they no longer have children at home. Many were worried about the cost of a new school added on top of the current hospital levy to fund major improvements to Mercy Hospital. Though the current hospital levy is only set for one year, some audience members pointed out that it could be extended at the whim of the hospital district if it feels it cannot afford future expenses associated with the project.

Monday night’s meeting was only the first of a series of informational meetings on the bond proposal. The next one will be held at 5 p.m. in the Moose Lake High School auditorium on Thursday, Aug. 28, at the time of the fall open house.

The Moose Lake bond referendum question will appear on the ballot in the Nov. 4 election this fall.