The time is drawing near for the St. Michael-Albertville school board to decide which projects, if any, to include on a potential bond referendum. Listening to residents was one important step before making those decisions, and they got plenty of opportunity to do that last Monday evening at a community input meeting.
All options currently on the table include nearly $5 million in “urgent and immediate repairs/upgrades,” such as pool repairs, technology funding and safety and energy-efficiency projects, a $9.2 million ice arena expansion, an artificial turf field with dome that could cost as much as $11.2 million with all options included, $170,000 to move baseball fields to the high school and upgrade softball fields and $7.6 million to add six classrooms onto the high school and eight classrooms onto Albertville Primary. The total for all these projects is an estimated $33,223,480.
Superintendent Dr. Ann-Marie Foucault said that the bond would cost a $200,000 homeowner between $25 and $43 per year, depending on how many of these projects the school board decides to add to the potential bond.
After a brief presentation by Foucault, the floor opened up for comments. About 25 residents spoke during that time, with the group generally split between sports supporters who wanted to expound upon the need for and benefits of a domed training facility in the area, and residents who had questions or concerns about the bond.
Parents with children in sports such as lacrosse, girls fast pitch softball, baseball, football and soccer spoke in favor of the bond and especially the dome facility. They spoke of rapidly growing youth programs who are now competing with larger communities that have easier access to off-season training facilities, and they described how difficult it is to find enough space to practice.
Several residents brought up the fact that St. Michael-Albertville is a growing community that could use more amenities to attract residents and businesses to the area and increase local home prices so homeowners can get a bigger return on their home investments.
Resident Curt Scholine said that the state of Minnesota has spent money to invest in the metro area’s northwest corridor, citing the extension of Highway 610 and the lane expansion of Interstate 94 and said he thought the school district was wise to plan for the future with growth in mind.
“Paying taxes is part of living in a prosperous area,” he said. “Businesses can make money if people are here; they can’t make money if people are leaving.”
Safety concerns over high school students traveling to the middle school for events such as football and track & field came up as justification for the need for high school facilities, as well as the reduced bussing costs.
The local youth baseball league manager, Doug Sander, said the baseball league gives many students of all ages the ability to play, including those who don’t get one of the 18 spots on the high school team but still desire to play ball. He said they have a shortage of ball fields for players ages 14 and up, who play on full-size fields.
On the classroom front, there didn’t seem to be much, if any, opposition to the idea of expanding the two schools that need additional space, though two residents brought up the question of how limiting open enrollment could change the picture and noting that only district families would be paying for the school expansion projects that also benefit open enrolled kids.
One high school math teacher, Darlene Kohling, spoke to give attendees an idea of how badly additional space is needed at the high school. She said there are currently 13 math teachers but only 10 classrooms for the mathematics department, and she said most of the larger departments are in the same position.
“There is a huge need, and I fear that six classrooms isn’t enough,” Kohling said.
Questions and concerns
Separating the bond referendum into multiple ballot questions was a frequent suggestion at Monday’s meeting. Several residents brought up their desire to have separate questions for separate needs, saying they would hate to vote no for expanding overcrowded buildings if they didn’t agree with the need for some of the other items on the prospective list.
Some residents worried that a passing bond referendum this winter would give state lawmakers the idea that STMA didn’t need more equitable school funding if they are passing large bond referendums, and expressed concern that a bond could bring about tax fatigue when it came time for residents to renew or increase the existing school levy, which funds basic education needs. However, one resident responded that he felt that was a scare tactic and that people would make good decisions about a future levy when given the facts.
Another point multiple residents brought up was that they understood the need for more practice facilities, but didn’t see the need to build a whole new sports arena.
“We have a very adequate football field, why relocate the whole arena?” asked resident John Jape.
Others asked about the expenses associated with maintaining these new facilities once they are built, and where the district would come up with that money. Matt Camden, owner of Dunn Brothers in St. Michael, said he needed to provide long-term budgets before asking for money from the bank. He said taxpayers should be given information on the long-term revenue stream and on what would happen if there is a budget shortfall somewhere, such as if annual expenses for the ice arena exceed income from ice time rental.
School board candidate Hollee Saville asked what the tax impact would be for local businesses, and other residents voiced their opinion that these figures should be stated publicly, as well as the tax impact for residents of higher-priced homes. Saville also asked if the school district would need to pay for ice time on the second sheet of ice, which they would own in full. They currently pay ice time for varsity and junior varsity players on the existing sheet of ice, as that sheet is jointly owned by the two cities and the school district.
The school board’s goal was to listen to residents rather than to engage in back and forth conversation. They will begin making decisions on the potential referendum at their next meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 6.
NOTE: North Wright County Today apologizes for any misspelled names. Speakers were required to state their names before speaking, but not spellings of names.