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Staples-Motley School District proposes $60 million referendum: Election day is May 14

STAPLES—After a community information session Tuesday, April 9, voters seem to be split on the necessity of a nearly $60 million referendum in the Staples-Motley School District.

Voters will head to the polls May 14 to decide if the district's desired renovations to its buildings, along with a new activities center, will come to fruition.

"Our facilities are not what our students and families are seeing or experiencing in districts near to us," Staples-Motley High School Principal Mike Schmidt wrote in an email after Tuesday's session. "Our buildings and grounds crew, along with faculty, have done what they can with the resources we've got. It's our time to ask the public for the assistance we need to carry our educational and community facilities forward."

About 40 people showed up to Tuesday's info session at the Staples-Motley Elementary School to learn about the referendum.

The needs

Over the last two years, the district developed a long-term facilities maintenance plan with the help of the community. A community task force formed to develop a plan to address both educational and fiscal needs in the district. After conducting listening sessions with students, school board members, staff and community members and assessing the educational adequacy of school buildings, the task force identified the following priorities: improved safety, security and accessibility of schools; increased vocational and trades opportunities for school-to-work students; additional learning spaces that fit today's teaching methods; and addressing long-term maintenance needs.

The task force's plan includes data from an educational adequacy report conducted by Forest, Jacobs and Johnson (now part of ICS Consulting), which concluded 75% of the district's facilities are substandard based on Minnesota Department of Education standards.

"The bottom line was, our buildings are old, they're tired," school board member Bruce Lund said Tuesday. "And there's a lot of things that we can improve on."

Under the referendum plan, the high school building would transition into a middle/high school, leaving the current middle school in Motley as an early childhood facility. District officials said the city of Motley might look to acquire the building in the future if the referendum passes.

Elementary school

The Staples-Motley Elementary School, on Fourth Street Northeast in Staples, was built in two parts in 1966 and 1996.

Perhaps one of the biggest issues at the elementary school is the lack of cafeteria space. At lunchtime, students get their food in the small kitchen and then walk down a long hallway to a small multipurpose room that serves as a cafeteria. Students have to be rotated in and out to allow all students a place to eat.

The kitchen staff's cooler and freezer are both outside, meaning staff has to go back and forth several times every day.

"For the long winter months, that becomes a big hazard for our staff," elementary Principal Kathy Johnson said in a video shown to attendees Tuesday night. "Having them go outside four or five times a day is not a good thing."

The informational video is available at bit.ly/2WZalhx .

High school

The Staples-Motley High School sits on Centennial Drive in Staples. The building was built in several parts, beginning in 1936, with other areas added from 1950-91.

Career and technical facilities are nearly 80 years old, and some of the equipment requires fixes but is too outdated to repair, Schmidt said.

The main gym is about 80 years old as well, and the 1991 auditorium has never been finished.

The auditorium's orchestra pit is not complete, the space does not comply with the American with Disabilities Act, or ADA. Lighting and acoustics need upgrades as well.

The water piping in the 1936 portion of the school was soldered with lead solder, meaning the water is not suitable to drink, Buildings and Grounds Supervisor Leroy Peterson said in the video.

Both schools

Over the last eight or nine years, Schmidt said $10.2 million has gone into both buildings, but simple fixes are no longer cost effective.

Natural light is one of the biggest priorities in both school buildings, as nearly two-thirds of student-occupied space have no window to the outside.

"The kids in our center corridor of our high school, if you're in that block for most of the day, you never see outside until you go into the cafeteria for lunch," Schmidt said.

Both schools need upgraded and additional special education space, as more than 20 percent of the district's 1,119 students receive special education services.

Safety of parent pick-up and drop-off sites concern both parents and staff members, Superintendent Ron Bratlie said, so the referendum will look to separate bus and car drop-off areas.

Many places in both schools are not ADA compliant, and some parts of the buildings do not have functioning sprinkler systems.

Outdated heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems mean rooms can be anywhere between 60-80 degrees at any given time.

Peterson said the roofs on both of the buildings are at the end of their lives, as water drips into the schools, creating hazards for students. The buildings also have asbestos, which Peterson said staff periodically checks.

Question 1

With a price tag of $48.2 million, the first referendum ballot question deals with safety and security, learning spaces and required maintenance.

The elementary school would see the following items:

• A remodeled office area to improve student and staff security.

• Expanded health services area.

• Separate bus path and parent drop-off.

• Added classrooms for music, art, and science, technology, engineering and math.

• New cafeteria, kitchen and receiving areas.

• Existing gym repurposed into classrooms and offices.

• New gymnasium with additional locker rooms.

The high school building, then, would see the following changes to service students in grades 5-12:

• Remodeled and expanded health and student services area.

• Improved visitor sign-in and access.

• Expanded parking.

• Expanded and remodeled technical and trades areas, including new metals and clean labs.

• New six-classroom addition.

• Remodeled classrooms to create new learning spaces and add natural lighting.

• Expanded cafeteria.

• Competition-sized gymnasium with public commons and health and fitness rooms.

• New student learning commons and breakout areas.

• Remodeled and expanded special education rooms.

• New family and consumer science lab.

• Updated performing arts center ceiling with theatrical lighting and acoustics.

Also included in Question 1 are required maintenance measures, which include addressing overdue building repairs; updating ceilings, floors, walls, doors, lockers and HVAC systems; and replacing roofing and windows.

The elementary school portion of Question 1 is estimated at about $14.4 million and breaks down as follows:

• Refurbish and create additional classrooms: $405,000.

• New receiving area, kitchen, cafeteria, two-court gym, music and lab addition: $11.5 million.

• Upgrade 1966 classroom casework, ceilings, lighting, flooring, etc.: $820,000.

• Repurpose gym for kindergarten and special education rooms, remodel office/entry: $620,000.

• Site work for new addition: $295,000.

• Furniture, fixtures and equipment: $780,000.

The middle and high school portion of the question is estimated at just under $33.1 million and breaks down as follows:

• Demolition and site work for new addition: $675,000.

• Classrooms, restrooms, locker rooms and auditorium: $6.82 million.

• HVAC, plumbing, sprinklers and electrical upgrades: $8.62 million.

• Replace 1950 classrooms and boiler place: $2.64 million.

• Six-classroom addition: $2.34 million.

• Competition gym, cafeteria expansion, fitness and wrestling addition: $10.7 million.

• Furniture, fixtures and equipment: $1.3 million.

Question 2

Estimated at $10.45 million, Question 2 requests funding for a Staples-Motley activities center attached to the elementary school.

The current Staples Community Center opened in 1974 and has many accessibility and code issues. Staples City Administrator Jerel Nelsen said in the video the useful life of the building is coming to an end. "We have many users of the community center throughout our entire community, and it would be a shame if that type of facility was no longer available," Nelsen said.

With the community center's future uncertain, the activities center would essentially take its place, offering a six-lane swimming pool, multipurpose gymnasium, fitness center, aerobic/cardio exercise room, meeting rooms, catering kitchen and locker rooms.

Because of its connection to the elementary school, the activities center would have access to a kitchen, cafeteria and additional gym and locker room space.

"People look at schools, they look at community amenities when deciding where they live," Nelsen said. "Having recreational facilities like the activities center are critical to draw people to our community."

If Question 2 passes, Lakewood Health System would contribute $1.5 million for a walking track in all three of the gyms at the elementary school, middle/high school and activities center.

Question 2 is contingent on Question 1, meaning if the first question fails, the second one cannot be approved. Question 1, however, could be approved without Question 2.

Tax impact

Questions after Tuesday's presentation showed cost is a large concern for those on the fence about supporting the referendum, perhaps because the passage of both questions could mean hundreds of dollars in tax increases for district residents.

Voters would be responsible for 42% of the referendum's cost, while nearly half the funding would come from property owners who live outside the district and cannot vote. Nine percent of the funds for Question 1 would come from the state's Ag2School tax credit, which gives assistance to farmers during school referendums.

If Question 1 passes, a residential home valued at $125,000 would see a tax increase of about $20.78 per month, or roughly $250 a year. If Question 2 passes, a home of the same value would see an increase of about $5.08 per month, or roughly $61 per year. Those costs translate to more than $300 of yearly property tax increases for a home valued at $125,000 for the next 25 years.

From a business perspective, if Question 1 passes, a business valued around $310,000 would see a tax increase of about $114 a month, or $1,368 a year. If Question 2 passes, a business of the same value would see an increase of about $28 a month, or $337 a year. Those costs translate to a roughly $1,700 increase annually.

If the referendum fails, the district will have to use nonvoter-approved money through long-term facility maintenance revenue, as allowed by state statute, to repair school buildings. An activities center, then, would not be built.

A tax impact calculator is available at bit.ly/2GeiF7z . At the bottom of the page are county links for property owners to find the parcel number of their properties to enter into the tax calculator.

Mild opposition

Voices of hesitancy came out of the woodwork during the question-and-answer portion of Tuesday's session, as voters inquired about cost, necessity and security.

Two Staples residents, who preferred not to be named, said after the session they are on the fence about which way to vote.

The couple, parents of Staples-Motley graduates, agreed with the need for some renovations but expressed concern about the high cost.

"I definitely see that there's a lot of needs that need to be fixed for the two buildings," one said. "But I don't know if it really justifies the huge amount of dollars they're asking for. As a cautious purchaser you'd just want to go in and assess what you need to fix and get better or make new within all the extras. And I think that's the consensus of some people in the area."

The couple agreed about the importance of quality educational spaces for children but acknowledged the long-term tax increase and possible issues with maintaining such expensive facilities.

"It's just a checks and balances," one said, "laying out what's a priority, what's not, and going in with a smart decision on this and considering your community members, too."

The activities center, the couple said, seems like an extra versus a necessity and carries with it a safety issue with members from the public being able to use the same space as students. When this point was brought up during the question-and-answer portion of the session, district officials said there could be different entrances for community members, set hours for community use and background checks required for those allowed to use the facilities.

Support

On the flip side, others in attendance Tuesday were quick to announce their intention to vote for the plan.

Parent Nichole Larson is unquestionably one of those "yes" votes.

"I believe that our community, our kids, families, we need this," she said. "I don't think there's a choice."

Natural lighting, an elementary cafeteria and ADA compliance are some of the biggest perks of the plan for Larson, who said she will support both referendum questions.

"Ultimately our community center is no longer going to exist in Staples," Larson said. "And so we need something here for, not just the kids, but for the community to use."

Jump Start kindergarten teacher Connie Roline, who is set to retire at the end of the year, noted similar concerns as Larson.

"It's time," she said. "The kids need a cafeteria, they need more space."

Roline's kids graduated from the Staples-Motley School District, and her grandchildren attend the schools now. "There's generations here that deserve an uplift," she said, noting specifically the temperature control issues in the school.

"One day all my kindergarten kids had coats on during the day," Roline said.

Substitute teacher Lori Bates wants to see a change in the unpredictable temperatures as well.

"Everything costs money," Bates said, "but when you go home at night, don't you want to have a nice warm house in the winter? Don't you want to have it cool in the summer? Don't you want the children in your school district to have an environment that is easier for them to learn in?"

Voting

Election day is noon to 8 p.m. May 14. Voters can register before the election or the day of at their polling place. Visit https://pollfinder.sos.state.mn.us to determine polling location.

Early voting began March 29. Applications for early voting are available at the school district office, 905 Fourth St. NE, Staples. Absentee ballot applications are available at the elementary, middle and high school offices.

For more information on the referendum, visit bit.ly/2X4vPK1.

Theresa Bourke

I started at the Dispatch in July 2018, covering Brainerd city government and the Brainerd School District. I follow city and school board officials as they make important decisions for residents and students and decide how to spend taxpayer dollars. I look for feature story ideas among those I meet and enjoy, more than anything, helping individuals tell their stories and show what makes them unique.

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