HANSKA - As the first of a series of public informational meetings on an upcoming school bond referendum unfolded in the Hanska Community Center Monday night, the people in attendance raised concerns about how the tax burden would be spread, the timing of the vote, the sustainability of what officials report as an upward trend in enrollment, and other issues.
The school district is seeking voter approval of a $46.9 million bond to build a new high school complex and remodel and reconfigure existing sites. The referendum is scheduled to coincide with the primary election on Aug. 12.
The informational meeting in Hanska drew about half a dozen people, primarily area farmers, plus a group of school officials, school board members and consultants from the architectural and financial firms advising the district.
Superintendent Jeff Bertrang gave a presentation about the bond. He outlined the history of school facilities; the reasons to form a broad-based community task force to study facility needs; and the process the task force used that ultimately led it to advise the route proposed, rather than several other options.
More specifically, Bertrang noted, the task force reviewed information from staff at all sites, the superintendent, the architect, and state recommendations. It looked at the tax impact for additions, remodeling, constructing new buildings, and needs versus wants.
The task force found sites lack secure entrances and classroom space. Additional required programs and curriculum since the 1960s have taken up classrooms spaces, it found. The district is using portable classrooms for high school classes and the annex for high school and after-school care programs. Enrollment is increasing at the elementary level, adding sections with few options as to where to put them.
All sites lack space for student to move. The district pays to use city athletic spaces, and the fine arts facility is outdated, off site and shared with athletics. Academic time is lost and costs are incurred to transport students for rehearsals and events.
Bertrang also outlined the priorities developed by the task force; and what the proposed construction and remodeling projects would involve. He gave examples to illustrate the tax impact; explained the district view on how the projects would benefit the community; and discussed proposed timelines.
Members of his audience expressed a concern that the bond, if it passes, would have a disproportionate impact on farmers.
"A school would be built on the backs of farmers" and "a minority would pay the majority of the bill," speakers noted.
One speaker said that a new educational facility, which prepares students well for the future, would bring a great deal of value to an industry that has a large workforce; in contrast, a farm operated by a family does not in general require a large number of employees.
Yet because of high land values and the size it takes for a farm to remain in existence, farmers would shoulder a disproportionate tax burden, the speaker said.
Speakers requested, and Bertrang promised to provide them with, answers on what percent of the bond would be paid by urban versus rural tax payers.
(Consultants noted the district does not control property tax rates and tax burden distribution which are regulated by state statutes.)
Another speaker took issue with tax impact examples chosen to illustrate the issue. District illustrations show that the tax increase for 80 acres of non-homesteaded agricultural land valued at $560,000 is $441 a year. While this may be technically accurate, said the speaker, land in this area is worth more than the $7,000 per acre suggested in the example, and farm size is typically closer to 800 rather 80 acres. The examples misrepresent the situation, but some voters may not look beyond them and may get the wrong impression, said the speaker.
"I have an issue with you trying to sneak this through the back door," he added.
(Consultants countered that the examples reflect land value averages provided by state assessors; a calculator on the district web site allows voters to log in their own numbers and obtain accurate individualized results.)
Others questioned the sustainability of enrollment growth reported by the district.
"It looks to me, New Ulm is a retirement town," noted one speaker. "Will it be dying in 30 years?"
Speakers also wanted to know why the bond is being voted in August, rather than during the general election in November. They suggested the vote may be timed to get less attention.
(Officials argued the opposite point, stressing the bond may get "lost" among the many more issues claiming attention at the general election. They noted that, as of recently, it is easy to obtain an absentee ballot for those inconvenienced by the summer date. Officials also said the earlier dates would allow for design and bidding to happen in time to utilize the entire construction season next year, if the bond passes.)
The next presentations on this topic, which follow the same script, are Aug. 22 in Lafayette, Aug. 28 in Courtland, and Aug. 29 in New Ulm.
The full text of the presentation and other information is available on the District 88 web site, www.newulm.k12.mn.us/.
An earlier version of this story accidentally listed an incorrect dateline. It is Hanska, not New Ulm.
The earlier version did not list the next meeting dates (which have been previously published).