Johnson Controls lays out its plans; board members and Bates say district voters need to be at the center of the conversation.
Is it really possible that maintenance and improvement projects easily eclipsing the $10 million mark in the three Crookston public school buildings and the school district-owned swimming pool could be completed, and the tax impact on school district taxpayers could be basically neutral, or possibly even result in a small property tax decrease?
According to performance contractor Johnson Controls, which works with school districts and other public entities across the upper Midwest on these types of things, it's not only possible, it's highly likely. The company, which had a 10-year, approximately $2 million contract with the school district expire several years ago, currently has a $70,000-a-year maintenance contract with the district. At the school board's request, for the past few months Johnson Controls has been analyzing roofs, walls, parking lots, heating systems, ventilation systems and just about everything else inside and out at the high school, Highland and Washington schools, as well as the pool. Over several hours on Thursday, Johnson Controls personnel met with board members and district administrators, toured each building, and detailed what they think could and should be done.
Some numbers to chew on:
• Projects at the pool total just under $2,011,827 and include a new roof, boiler, filtration/surge tank improvements, and ventilation and dehumidification upgrades.
• Projects at Crookston High School, at least those that are eligible to be levied for, total $1.55 million and involve the replacement of the east and west parking lots. The biggest CHS projects not included in the total cost in Johnson Controls' figures on Thursday because they aren't levy-eligible include a new roof, heat pump system and building automation system. Those projects alone total just about $9.4 million.
• Projects at Highland total just under $6.5 million and include things like a new boiler and new and/or improved ventilation throughout the building. Like CHS, however, there are projects that aren't eligible for health and safety, abatement or capital levies, such as new windows, so they aren't included in the bottom line cost Johnson Controls personnel detailed Thursday. In other words, district voters would have to approve operating levy dollars at the ballot box for those types of projects.
• Projects at Washington School, which, of the local facilities needs the least amount of immediate attention, total just under $200,000 on the levy-eligible list. Non-levy-eligible projects total just over $800,000.
Dave Bergeron of Johnson Controls stressed that the estimates are at the high-end, and that the actual costs could be lower. "This is the most-cost scenario; you can certainly back off," he said.
How it all adds up
That's a lot of money and a boatload of projects. So how in the world can the bulk of it be accomplished without burying district residents under over-burdensome property tax hikes?
Well, the key is the the fact that the bonds that paid for the construction of CHS in 1996 are scheduled to be paid off over the next year. When added to a health and safety levy reduction, it will result in a property tax decrease of just over 15 percent in the school district. For the average $100,000 home, the decrease amounts to around $110 a year. If the levy-eligible projects in the facilities are undertaken, it's expected that a very small tax decrease would remain.
State law allows the school board to issue various bonds without seeking voter approval first, and Bergeron said the law exists for school districts in Crookston's situation, districts that have been "climbing a ladder" endlessly for years, trying to keep up with maintenance needs, but they never seem to get any higher on the ladder and needed projects continuously get put off until they can't be put off any longer.
But board members and Superintendent Chris Bates made it clear Thursday that although some projects are absolutely urgent and have to happen – the pool roof, Highland boiler and high school roof come to mind – they want to be completely transparent and explain everything to school district residents as they put together a package of projects and financing options. Board members and Bates want voters to have a say.
"I think if we put together a full package and tell our story to the people completely and with full transparency, I think we have a good chance of getting their support," Bates said. "I think if we tell them their taxes are going to go down and then we do a bunch of things without letting them vote and their taxes maybe don't go down as much, they're going to feel betrayed. Just because we can do something doesn't mean we should do something."
"Because we just did," board member Frank Fee interjected during the first session with Johnson Controls Thursday that preceded the tours and a second working session.
Fee is referring to the two ballot questions voters approved a couple years ago. One provides around $1 million in general education revenue each year and the other brings in around $150,000 a year for 10 years in pool-specific revenue. That money has resulted in the new tiling and lighting at the pool so far, but Johnson Controls say the needs at the pool, with the roof and ventilation especially, go far beyond tiles and lighting.
Bates wasn't on the job when the ballot questions were approved, so he said he wasn't sure exactly what went into determining how much pool revenue to ask voters to approve. Fee, who was on the board then, said it was determined that if too much pool money was sought, the board risked voters rejecting both questions. "We felt if we asked for too much we wouldn't even be talking about the pool right now because it would be closed," Fee said. "I don't care how these pool projects are funded; all I know is it's taking away from educational dollars and that's a real problem. I don't know how we get around that. We have a city that thinks we're trying to stiff them around every corner. It's unbelievable."
Board member Dave Davidson told the Times Friday that he agrees wholeheartedly with Bates' view on transparency and telling the voters what's going on. "Some things have to be done no matter what; we have no choice," he said. "Some things need to be approved by the voters. If they say no, we can still do some things. But we have to make it perfectly clear to the voters what has to be done and what their options are."
Fee agrees. "I'm on the same page; I wouldn't feel comfortable doing all kinds of things with no vote," he said. "The total thing has to be laid out. Tell them they're going to save some taxes here, but they're going to be taxed a little there, but they might save a little money overall."
In order to make the construction of CHS affordable, the quality of the roof was sacrificed. Now, it needs to be replaced with a much better roof that would carry a 30-year warranty. "When I was still teaching I had five-gallon buckets on the floor catching rain and that's no joke," said the recently retired Davidson.
No matter what the board or the voters decide to do, Davidson said everyone also needs to be cognizant of how long projects are financed into the future. "Do we go out 15 years, 20 years?" he said. "By the time we're done paying for it, you'd have a far different board, and we don't want to enter into deals that tie up future boards. Plus, 20 years, that's the life expectancy of the things we're talking about here, boilers and things. You pay it off, then it's time to replace everything again."
As far as what comes next, board members are digesting the mountains of information put together by Johnson Controls. The board will hold a working session on July 25 at 7 a.m. at the high school to figure out the next steps, Davidson said, adding that he encourages anyone who has questions or concerns to contact Bates or any board member they feel most comfortable talking to.
"A productive conversation needs to be had here," he said. "We can do a lot of really important things in our district and our kids, but it has to be done right."