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An overview of the referendum

Perham High School, which turns 100 years old this year, will be completely rebuilt at a new location if voters approve a referendum Nov. 24. There would also be improvements made at the elementary and middle schools. A separate question on the ballot will ask voters for a new auditorium at the high school. FOCUS file photo

Perham-The Perham-Dent School District is planning a second building referendum Nov. 24, at a cost of  $45.27 million, to upgrade a couple of its buildings and build a new high school to further meet the educational needs of the families it serves, as well as meet future educational goals.

A group of concerned citizens contend there is a better, less expensive way to build a school and still meet the needs of Perham-Dent students, which is to realign grades in three primary buildings.

Both sides believe they are seeking the best solution to student overcrowding, outdated facilities, classrooms, and safety and security issues, while still getting the most bang for the taxpayer’s buck.

Here are some facts about the proposal from both sides.

The school district is requesting $45.27 million to upgrade its elementary and early education school (Heart of the Lakes) and middle school (Prairie Wind) and build a new 9-12 high school. A separate ballot question on whether to approve the building of an auditorium at the new high school site will also be decided.

Proponents of the referendum say because of higher-than-projected enrollment numbers this fall, elementary students are crowded at HOTL; they will cause crowding at the middle and high schools as they progress through the grades, and each year, beginning in seventh grade, many of Perham’s parochial students join the public school system, which is estimated at an additional 22 students based on the kindergarten numbers in the parochial schools now. Overcrowding is evident at the elementary level with four sections of fourth graders using portable classrooms, according to district officials.

Opponents of the building plan say the solution to the overcrowding is to realign the grades at each school, making a K-2 elementary school; a 3-6 middle school and a 7-12 high school. The realignment of the elementary and middle school building would not create any new cost, say representatives of the citizen group, and would still meet students’ educational needs.

Realigning the grades was one of eight plans explored by the community task force but it would have added about $7.8 million to the cost of the plan and didn’t meet the educational goals of the district as identified by the task force, according to Superintendent Mitch Anderson. The community is proud of the middle school concept as it is meeting the needs of students, he said.

For planning purposes, district officials projected 1,339 students for the 2015-16 year; the actual number of students that started this fall was up 62 kids for a total enrollment of 1,401. Realigning the grades turned out not to be a good option, according to the task force, because it wouldn’t accommodate the number of students already in the district.

Consultants looked at the educational and physical needs of the district and determine the best cost, at $264 per square foot, the school’s needs could be adequately met.

According to Pat Overom, with ICS Consultants, who worked with the task force to identify what the community needed in a school, the cost estimate takes into account a number of factors.

“The conceptional cost estimates that were developed accurately represent what it’s going to take to construct Perham’s facilities,” Overom said, “Given what we know about the district, the educational needs and the timelines associated with the project.”

Overom was charged with helping the task force develop consensus statements based on the needs it saw, and eventually helped the group narrow the options from about seven, to just a couple. Realigning grades was one option that was explored, he said, but the task force learned that the way the grades are configured is “working well educationally,” and the task force eliminated it as an option.

 After researching the options, the group decided to present what they believed was the most financially reasonable and fit all the major needs of the district, Fred Sailer, a member of the task force, said.

The breakdown of the proposal looks like this:

           $35,595,000 -- New 9-12 high school

           $684,000 – Prairie Wind Middle School improvements

           $7,423,500 – Heart of the Lakes Elementary and Early Childhood renovations

           $1,567,500 – Instructional equipment, technology and furnishings

           $45,270,000 – Total cost for question 1 on the ballot

Question 2 on the ballot will ask voters to approve construction of an auditorium at the new high school for $6,200,000. The tax impact should voters approve the first question, would be $10.32 a month, or $123.84 annually on a home valued at $150,000. If question two also passes, the taxes would be $2.49 or $29.88 for the year on the same home.

By approving both questions on the ballot, a person living in a home valued at $150,000, would see a total increase of $12.81 per month, or $153.72 a year, a decrease from the $194 a year in the original proposal.

Voters will decide the referendum on Nov. 24. Polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. at voting locations in Perham, Ottertail and Dent.

Those opposed to the plan say this is a way to eliminate people from voting as it falls during Thanksgiving week when people are traveling for the holidays. Also, snowbirds, or those who move south for the winter, may be gone by that date as well.

The district was guided by strict laws and regulations regarding when schools can conduct referendums, one of which is a 180-day period between elections. Nov. 8 was 180 days from May 12, the date of the previous election, and was the earliest the school could plan another referendum. There is also a specified time frame to allow the Minnesota Department of Education to review the proposal, Anderson said. The task force considered the Nov. 24 date, Anderson said, and decided to offer absentee ballots in early October to allow holiday-traveling families and snowbirds the opportunity to vote.

The school district eliminated $7 million in deferred maintenance costs  from the project as well as reduced the high school building cost from $39,990,000 to $35,595,000. Coupled with two levies expiring by 2017, and breaking off the auditorium from the primary building project as a separate ballot question, the task force believes building now will have the lowest tax impact.

The citizen group opposed to the building plan believes the district will simply levy the $7 million in maintenance costs, because it can do so without voter approval, essentially adding it back onto the taxpayers, representatives said.

However, the district can only levy for health/ safety and maintenance on such things as heating, cooling and parking lots for example, Anderson said, adding that such repairs have to have a five-year life. The district is only allowed to levy for the costs of said repairs based on estimates presented to the Department of Education.

Other costs that are often under the radar of voters are the costs of consultants and architects’ fees and the cost of putting on an election. The May referendum cost the district more than $15, according to District Business Manager Kristi Werner. She expects it to cost about the same amount for the November election.

With a failure of the referendum in November, people can expect construction costs to increase with inflation at about 4 percent annually, according to Overom, and that is a conservative number. The past couple of years, construction costs increased by 6 to 8 percent. Even at 4 percent, inflation could potentially add another $1.52 million to the cost.

 “In my experience, delayed projects require revisiting and re-estimating all costs of a project,” Overom said.

 The district is planning a celebration to commemorate the 100-year-old high school that has “served (the district) well, said Fred Sailer. Put into perspective, he said. it was built at a time when people were driving Model T’s.

“It’s time to replace (the school),” he added.

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