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Outcome of proposed Verndale building bond vote uncertain

Photo provided An artist's conception of the proposed addition to the Verndale School building.

District 818 residents will be giving a green light or a red light to a $3.995 million, 20-year building bond project Tuesday for the Verndale school.

The Verndale School Board proposed the project in early June. The main feature of the project is an addition to the existing school. The addition will include a gymnasium with two basketball courts, a choir room, a band room, practice rooms for musicians, a concessions area and storage space.

Overseeing the building bond process has been R.A. Morton - a construction contractor from St. Cloud.

In late May, shortly before the District 818 school board approved a task force recommendation on the size of the project and set the vote for Aug. 14, Verndale Superintendent Paul Brownlow said he considered the outcome to be up in the air. He still does.

"I don't think we have a real true flavor one way or the other," Brownlow said Monday.

Letters to the editor have appeared in the Wadena Pioneer Journal and the Verndale Sun, both supporting and opposing the bond issue. Brownlow said the additional cost to a district taxpayer who owned a $90,000 home would be $16 a year.

Verndale has strong open enrollment numbers. This year's projected enrollment is 470, with almost half of those students coming from other districts. Families living outside the district will not pay for the addition, but Brownlow pointed out they do pay taxes within their respective districts. A portion of those taxes come to District 818 on an operating levy.

"With our strong open enrollment numbers, that allows us to offer some more opportunities for our own kids that are within our district," Brownlow said. "If we were looking to be at 250 kids of our own, we would definitely not have some of the programs that we have."

District 818 will finish paying off its current building bond in 2014. The bond was approved to add on portions of the elementary wing on the east side of the school. Brownlow pointed out continuing the bond, which is issued by the state of Minnesota, could cut costs to district residents in the long run.

"If that (bond) expires three years down the road and we say we have met our maximum capacity, we are still needing classroom space, gymnasium space, fine arts space. We have to come back to them after the building bond has expired and say 'now instead of costing you $16 on your taxes on a $90,000 home, depending on many different factors, it could be $116,'" Brownlow said.

Landowners and commercial businesses will pick up a greater amount of taxes. R.A. Morton has provided anyone who asks with a dollar amount on what their new tax will be if the bond referendum passes.

Brian Roth is a landowner in the district, who also served on the community-driven task force that recommended the size of the building bond. Roth would like to have seen more input from teachers and school staff in making the recommendation.

"I'd say it's 50-50," Roth said, in making a prediction on how the vote might go. "Even if it passes, at the end of the day I hope we can all come together and work together."

In 2007, the student population of District 818 was 432. Brownlow suspects the projected enrollment for the 2012-2013 school year of 470 could go up in the coming weeks. State and federal financial aid to school districts is based on student enrollment.

District 818 is bracketed by three larger school districts: Sebeka, Wadena-Deer Creek and Staples-Motley. Verndale shares some programs with the neighboring Bertha-Hewitt district.

Verndale has two gyms at the present time. The larger gym is used for classes, practices and sporting events. The smaller one is part of a multi-purpose auditorium and cafeteria.

The largest room in the addition would be the new gymnasium. It would seat 900 spectators.

Verndale's main gym was built in 1965. The school's older gym is believed to be part of an addition that dates back to 1934. Bertha-Hewitt replaced their 1954 gym in 2000, Brownlow said.

"I know some people are really focusing on the gym, but that is one of the reasons why to hopefully better accommodate our fine arts, which we have continued to hear from our community. We want to keep strong," Brownlow said.

Chris Youngbauer is a supporter of the project and served on the community-driven task force. Like Roth, he hopes the Verndale community comes together behind whatever path is chosen by the voters.

"I just hope that enough information gets out there that is factual information," Youngbauer said.