Attendees of the Jan. 28 Princeton school board meeting were treated to a double-bill of information and also what some might call drama.
The first part was a long-awaited, facilities options committee recommendation to the school board on how to deal with the district’s school space issues. Those include the entire second grade at South Elementary having classes in rented portable units rented at a cost of about $105,000 per year.
The committee’s recommendation to the board is to build a new K-2 elementary on the north end of the city and conduct an addition and remodelling project at the high school, all for no more than $30 million
The second part of the double bill was fiery debate at numerous times in the meeting over the recommendation and the process used to reach it. The debate was sparked by comments made by board member Chuck Nagle.
Three members of the school district’s citizen-based, options committee – Kevin Walz, Shannon Arens and Rachel Gillman – with the assistance of Wold architect Vaughn Dierks, gave the facilities recommendation. Walz, Arens and Gillman each took turns going over the details and how the full committee they were representing, reached it.
They noted how the cost of remodelling and adding onto the K-2 South Elementary would cost 80 percent of the cost of building new, and that a remodelled and added-onto building would still have shortcomings. The deficits would include hallways too narrow and classroom sizes that don’t meet state guidelines. Another stated drawback to renovating and adding onto South Elementary was a continuation of a congested parking lot adjacent to the high school parking lot.
The options committee recommended that a new K-2 elementary be built either on the same property occupied by North Elementary (grades 3-5), or build the new school on district-owned land about a quarter mile north of the middle school. The middle school is a few blocks east of North Elementary.
The committee’s recommendation for the high school is to improve the flow and function of the kicthen/cafeteria spaces, add two physical education gym spaces, make locker spaces handicap accessible, and modernize the industrial technical spaces.
Dierks estimated the cost of the new K-2 school at “a little under $24 million,” but offered no estimate for the costs of the committee’s stated priorities for the high school, where a couple portable units also sit.
Dierks and the option committee representatives noted that the facilities finance committee decided that any new bond referendum should not exceed $30 million. The figure is based on a consulting firm’s survey gauging what size of bond issue district taxpayers would support.
Three people at the board meeting questioned the recommendation or the process leading to it. The first questioner was Rich Harris, who spoke strongly during the meeting’s open forum against South Elementary being “abandoned.”
Harris acknowledged the deficiencies of the 14 units of portable classrooms at South Elementary. But the masonry building that is South Elementary is strong and should “not be abandoned as an asset,” Harris said. “Barring calamity or neglect,” the structure could last a much longer time, he added. With so many urging everyone to reduce, reuse and recycle, alternatives should be examined other than just leaving the building, Harris said.
Elaine Philippi also had questions during open forum. “I feel the board has more work to do,” she said. She added that she has heard a lot of “significant concerns in the larger community” about the district’s declining enrollment, and the future of South Elementary and the high school.
The third person questioning the facilities recommendation was school board member Nagle.
Nagle open his comments by saying he agrees something must be done to replace the portable classrooms, and then posed four questions:
• When will the portables be eliminated the way taxpayers desire?
• How will the empty classrooms be used (if construction results in the district over-building)?
• How will another facilities project in 10 years be financed?
• When does the school board begin the debate?
On the issue of the portables, Nagle stated: “Teachers are sentenced for life in the portables but juveniles are released after one year.” Nagle asked if students and teachers are “being held hostage until taxpayers pony up for a new building?”
Nagle mentioned declining enrollment in the district since 2006 and the projection of more decline in the next 10 years.
Nagle next stated that the district’s per-student debt is “higher than all surrounding districts including Sartell and Sauk Rapids, except for Cambridge and Elk River. Nagle charged that if the district borrows $30 million now, then only Elk River will be among the schools he listed who would have more per-student debt.
District Director of Business Services Michelle Czech left the board meeting sometime after Nagle’s debt comments and returned later with a graph. IT showed the school taxes for payable 2013 on a property with a $168,500 estimated market value in the Princeton district and 12 other districts.
The tax was $314 for the Princeton district, which was the fifth lowest of the group, The Montivideo, Monticello, Chisago Lakes and Becker districts were in descending order lower than Princeton. The St. Francis, Buffalo, Milaca, Cambridge-Isanti, Sauk Rapids-Rice, Elk River, Big Lake, St. Michael-Albertville districts were higher in ascending order.
Nagle further claimed that the options committee was assigned to determine the best way to attain a “like new building” and that he didn’t feel other alternatives were seriously evaluated.
Dierks responded that the “like new building” was a comparative phrase used in the evaluation process and not a goal.
Nagle also suggested that the district’s facilities process did not focus on a long range plan, that it only gave a complete facilities assessment to South Elementary. Nagle claimed there wasn’t enough effort to get more participation on the facilities study committees.
Nagle further suggested that making a decision on a facilities project at the board’s next board meeting would not allow the media enough time to publish coverage of the Jan. 28 board discussion before hand.
School board chair Deb Ulm and Superintendent Julia Espe noted that the board intends to tackle what to do about its facilities at its next board meeting, Feb. 6.
The board would have met on Feb. 4 but had to change the meeting date because of political caucuses the evening of Feb. 4.
Responding to Nagle
Nagle brought an immediate response from board member Craig Johnson when Nagle said he has not heard from anyone in the community who believe that a bond referendum to finance what the option committee is recommending will pass.
“I have,” Johnson fired back, indicating he has heard favorable community comments toward what the options committee recommended.
Options committee member Arens told Nagle that her committee would like to eliminate the portables now, and added that the committee members are all taxpayers.
Options committee member Gillman said the committee members will also be going into the community to explain what they will be asked to help finance. The problem with one of the last referendums was that the proposal was to build a “Taj Mahal,” while this latest proposal is one the community can understand, Gillman said.
Gillman responded to Nagle’s concern that if enrollment continues to decline, a new K-2 building could end up with empty spaces. Committee members discussed that and suggested that if that happened perhaps the district’s early childhood students could move into those spaces, Gillman said.
Discussion heats up
Nagle’s per-pupil debt statement that brought a rebuke from board member Craig Johnson.
“I think making a statement like that without demonstrating the facts is not appropriate,” Johnson said.
Nagle maintained that he had the “facts” before him to support his claim.
Johnson expressed little faith in Nagle’s data and said that the per-student debt is different in every district.
Board chair Deb Ulm also disagreed with Nagle, asking how his conclusions could be true. “Our debt is lower than most other school districts,” she said.
“Absolutely,” Johnson responded.
Nagle held his ground, stating that he got the information from a Minnesota Department of Education website and that it was from what he found available – year 2011.
Based on one column of data, that is not how the school debt ratio is calculated, Johnson said.
Czech commented that per-student debt for a specific year is based on a specific year. “We can take Milaca, Foley, St. Cloud, Sauk Rapids,” she continued. “They can stretch their debt over different numbers of years. So the debt changes each year for these districts, depending on what’s coming off from a bond or what’s coming on for a bond. Sauk Rapids just built a $65 million high school. We do not have that kind of debt load here.”
Some districts get 15-year loans and some get 30-year loans, Czech added.
“And it changes every year when bonds come due compared to how much debt you have,” Johnson told Nagle. “So to make a blanket statement that we’re one of the worst financial situations in central Minnesota is a bunch of crap and I don’t think it is appropriate for you to make a statement like that in a public meeting without the proper data. And without the proper background in school finance, to make that statement.”
Johnson also said he thought Nagle was “demeaning the work” of the options committee and that he didn’t think Nagle should be putting the committee members “on the spot like they are speaking for the whole community or the 10 or 15 people you speak with. It’s not appropriate.”
Nagle answered that he was not suggesting the district was in any financial trouble, which brought a quick response from Vaillancourt. He said Nagle’s debt comments made it look like the Princeton district was “going bankrupt.”
Johnson charged that Nagle was “wrong” on his conclusions concerning the district’s debt.
“Could be,” Nagle answered.
“Then don’t make the statement if you don’t know,” Johnson said. “You had better back it up with facts to support it. You can’t (make such a conclusion) by one website and a little bit of division. Absolutely not”
Nagle said he was only talking about debt.
Johnson pressed Nagle that he had used four-year-old data.
Board member Eric Minks criticized Nagle for his statement about the portables Nagle asking if students and parents were “being held hostage until taxpayers pony up for a new building.”
Minks said that Nagle’s statements made it look like the school district “purposely put the portables there in hopes that we get a new school. Some people could take it that way.” Minks added that Nagle was making too many “flippant comments…with the tone that we’re doing something wrong or we’re trying to backhand or pull an end run around people…”
Nagle also got in trouble with options committee member Arens when he said he recalled teachers trying to pull something off the options committee agenda.
Arens responded that she took offense to that statement, Arens feeling it was giving the impression that teachers ruled the facilities study process. She didn’t believe that as a teacher herself, that her teacher status had any bearing on how she did her work on the committee.
Nagle apologized to Arens, saying he didn’t mean to imply that.
More discussion ensued as Nagle suggested the school board not make the facilities decision at its next board meeting, so as to get more public input.
Board member Howard Vaillancourt defended the district’s facilities process and the board’s plans to consider a facilities decision on Feb. 6. The district has never before gone at such lengths to get the public involved in a facilities improvement project like it has this time, Vaillancourt said.
“I’m ready to vote right now,” Minks said.
Board member Jeremy Miller also defended the process, recalling the many hours citizens spent on the committees.
Johnson took another blast at Nagle at that point. “You didn’t get the recommendation you wanted so you’re pissed off,” Johnson told Nagle. “…It’s a recommendation I wanted to hear. I’m 100 percent behind it.”