If approximately $14 million in maintenance, improvement and capital investment projects are completed next year at the three public school buildings in Crookston as well as the school district-owned swimming pool, Superintendent Chris Bates said Monday evening at the high school, students, parents, teachers, staff and the community as a whole will know many years from now the importance of the decision made now to not put off the needed work any longer.
And all of that needed work, Bates and others involved in the project's financing stressed, can be accomplished without property owners in the district taking a financial hit in the form of a property tax increase.
"This is not for the school board, it's not for the teachers and it's not for me...it's for the kids," Bates said at a school levy referendum public information meeting in the CHS auditorium. "For the next 25 years we'll be able to tell our taxpayers that this was taken care of by people 15, 20 years ago. ...What we're saying to the community is these are your assets, this is what you pay for, and this is what we're going to do to protect it."
The total project package, entitled in materials disseminated at Monday's meeting as the "Facilities Improvement Plan: Roadmap to Improving the Learning Environment in Crookston Public Schools," adds up to around $14 million, but school district voters on Tuesday, Nov. 5 will be asked to approve a shade over $6 million. The rest of the projects, totaling just under $8 million, can be approved by the school board without the go-ahead first from voters in the district, thanks to state statute.
But Bates stressed that the school board is not "trying to take advantage" of what state law allows them to do. "We've been very cautious not to take advantage of that right and to put this out before the public as a total package," the superintendent said, "which is designed to mirror pretty much what your taxes currently are."
The meeting attracted almost 30 people, but all but a half-dozen or so of those in attendance were members of the school board, district administration, or are teachers or school district staff.
So how can the work be done without an increase in what school district residents are currently paying in school property taxes? The retiring of the debt in 2015 that constructed Crookston High School is what makes it possible, said Don Litto of Springsted, Inc., the district's financial consultant. Not only will property taxes remain the same if the entire $14 million package is done, Bates and Litto agreed, they'll actually go down slightly on residential homestead, commercial/industrial and agricultural homestead properties. For example, a home valued at $100,000 will see its property taxes drop by $98 a year when the high school debt disappears. The project package will increase the taxes on that home by $94 a year, resulting in a net decrease of $4, according to documents disseminated by Springsted.
Page 2 of 2 - The bonds will be financed over a 20-year term at an estimated interest rate of 4.1 percent.
"We're telling people your taxes will go down slightly, but our total goal has been to keep this project scope within the window of what you're currently paying," Bates said. "We are saying your taxes won't change and we are going to be able to fix everything up, over the long term, for 20 to 30 years."
Projects, enrollment question
The primary projects include new roofs with 30-year warranties at Washington, CHS and the swimming pool; roof repairs and upgrades, new windows, new heating and ventilation at Highland; a long-term pool plan for a new boiler and air exchange system; and, new heat pumps and east and west parking lots at the high school.
Asked by audience member Kevin Boyle if three public school buildings will even be open in 20 years because of declining enrollment, Bates said the question has been researched and that there is nothing to indicate that the district is anywhere close to being able to operate with only two buildings. And if that day ever comes, he stressed, smaller school districts surrounding Crookston will be in far greater dire straits. Currently, every available room at Washington and Highland is full of kids, Bates explained.
"We would have to see a decrease of about 40 percent of our students, to a district of around 700 or 750 pupils, and if that happens, it won't be within 15 or 20 years," he said. "More importantly, if that does happen here, then Fisher, Climax and Red Lake Falls will see reductions of 70 percent in their numbers. ...Those towns won't have individual schools and the whole model of education in northwest Minnesota would have to change. You'd have more 'central' high schools, and I would argue most older kids would come to Crookston. Then you'd really still need Washington.
"I don't think it's feasible that in the next 20 to 25 years we can exist without Washington School," Bates continued.
No more neglect
A slide in a PowerPoint presented Monday sums up the school board and administration's point of view: "At this time, the school board and administration feel we should no longer continue with simply unacceptable levels of building maintenance. In addition, we believe that the total package and the unique financial timing make us as responsible as we can be. We are asking to fix virtually everything that has been neglected for the amount the community is already paying for building the current Crookston High School 18 years ago."