Several meetings on facility needs scheduled, including public input session.

Normally, the Crookston School Board meets only once a month or so over the summer, but faced with a list of needed repairs and various improvements and upgrades at the three school buildings and swimming pool totaling around $16 million, the board and administration face a crucial summer of meetings, discussion, public input, and decisions.

All of it, Crookston School District Superintendent Chris Bates told the Times, is likely leading up to a ballot initiative for school district residents to consider in November.

Performance Contractor Johnson Controls, which had a 10-year contract with the school district that expired a few years ago, currently is working under a $70,000-a-year maintenance contract with the district. Earlier this year, the district asked Johnson Controls to, for $20,000, conduct a detailed needs analysis at the three schools and swimming pool. Earlier this month, Johnson Controls submitted its findings, and took board members and Bates on a tour of the four buildings to show them where the most pressing needs were.

Among them are a new roof, boiler, and ventilation/dehumidification system at the pool, a new roof and parking lot at Crookston High School, and a new boiler and windows at Highland School. Legislation in Minnesota makes it possible for the school board to move ahead on around $10 million of the $16 million in projects without asking district voters' permission first. The other $6 million or so in projects, which include things like the new CHS roof and Highland windows, don't fit under the parameters of any state levy statutes, and would require voter approval first.

If the target to do much of the work in the summer of 2014 is to be met, Bates said, a ballot question(s) must be asked of voters this November. He stressed that it's highly unlikely that the full $16 million in projects would be endorsed by the board, and that things would be scaled back some. But in the next breath, he bemoaned the continued neglect of facility needs in the district, and said that they will only get worse if the board, due to financial constraints, is continually forced to ignore them, or put Band-Aids on them.

The district's financial advisor, Springstead, Inc., has compiled a tax-impact spreadsheet that shows a minimal impact on district property owners, and maybe even a small tax decrease, if many of the projects are implemented. How is that possible? It's because the bonds that build Crookston High School in 1996 are coming off the books in the coming year, resulting in a significant property tax decrease for district property owners.

A comprehensive, transparent package
Bates echoed board members' sentiments when he told the Times that even though the law allows the board to do all kinds of stuff without going to the voters, it's important that district residents be given a full explanation of the daunting situation facing the district's facilities, and how the board best proposes to address it.

"Yes, there are things we don't have to go to the voters for, but no one wants to do any of this in secret, either," he said. "It's staggering how old some of these things are, like the boilers. There are things with a 20 to 25 year life that have served this district well, but we're going on 30 and 35 years now. It's high time something was done."

As far as interest rates on borrowing go, Bates added, the timing might never be better than right now.

The superintendent said he realizes many might be afflicted with a case of sticker shock. He's not immune from that, either, he stressed. "Not very long ago, I said I thought the new pool roof would cost around $200,000 and people said I was crazy to go that high," Bates recalled. "Well, it's $425,000. That's a lot of money."

The story is similar at the high school. In order to fit the construction into the budget established by the bonds that were financed to build it, a higher-quality roof was sacrificed in favor of other features at the school. As a result, the thin roof membrane is failing all over the place, with some teachers literally catching rain water in five-gallon buckets in their classrooms. The thicker, 30-year warranty roof carries a $1.9 million price tag.

"The high school is a wonderful building, but it's been open for almost 20 years now; it needs attention," Bates said.

"The question facing us is, can we make this right? Can we put a package together and explain it to the people in a way that they will understand and support?" he continued. "I think we can do this right. I think we can fix a lot of these things, and then turn our attention toward things we'd much rather pay attention to, like teaching kids."

The board won't be required to contract with Johnson Controls for any of the work to come, but Bates thanked them for their work. "Teachers, we go to college because we want to learn how to educate kids; we don't study roofs and boilers a lot," he said. "But we're trying to be solid stewards for the public, and I try to do that by imagining it's my house and my own money. That means I want to find a good deal but also good solutions. I think we're on the verge of putting a good deal together that solves a lot of things."

Meeting schedule
Starting Monday, discussions on how to finance needed repairs and improvements at the three school buildings and swimming pool will dominate the Crookston School Board and Superintendent Chris Bates' summer. The schedule includes a public input meeting.
1 Monday, June 24, 5 p.m., CHS choir/orchestra room: Regular board meeting
2 Tuesday, June 25, 7 a.m., district office conference room, special board meeting to discuss direction and proposals by Johnson Controls
3 Tuesday, July 9, 7 p.m., public input meeting, CHS commons
4 Thursday, July 11, 7 a.m., district office conference room, special board meeting to decide on a plan/how to move forward
5 Monday, July 15, 5 p.m., CHS choir/orchestra room, regular board meeting, review and approve resolution for future action