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Commentary: It’s good to question need for large referendum amount

Posted: Friday, April 15, 2016 12:00 pm

By John Diers

Growing up, most of us spent roughly 180 days a year in school. We loved it. We hated it. We had teachers both good and bad. There were moments of excitement and insight interspersed with hours of interminable boredom and pedagogy. We were given facts and figures and dates and names and measured and tested and made ready for a competitive economic system and the workplace.

But is that what education is about?

Mark Twain once said, “I never let my schooling interfere with my education.” Socrates admitted he couldn’t teach anybody anything and said learning is the “kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.” It’s about an open mind and a questioning attitude — something that all of us should bring to the upcoming school referendum.

There’s a difference between going to school and learning, and with that difference comes a question about the need for, and to what extent, school infrastructure: classrooms, gymnasiums, cafeterias, parking lots, auditoriums and technology promote that end. It’s a $150 million referendum question that comes before Prior Lake voters on May 24.

Prior Lake is growing, and the school district hired a consultant to assess the effects of that growth on the school system. The consultant projected a gain of 1,500 students across all grades over the next five years, roughly 250 students per year.

To accommodate that growth, the school board wants to spend $129 million on buildings and improvements with principle and interest, paid for over 20 years, plus another $21.25 million on technology to be spent and paid for over 10 years.

A $300,000 home in the district currently pays almost $1,600 in school taxes as part of their property tax bill. Referendum approval will add another $400 plus, which is a 25-percent increase.

The May 24 referendum is the largest referendum to go before voters in the history of Prior Lake and is one of the largest school referendums this year in the metro area. It will more than double the school district’s debt from $103 million to $232 million. It’s estimated the total cost of principal, plus interest, and bonding for $129 million of additional debt could exceed $175 million, depending upon the bond interest rate.

There are 70 separate projects funded in the $129 million building referendum. That’s $86,000 for each of the 1,500 new students expected over the next five years.

All of the projects, grouped by school with the cost, are listed in a five-page document that was prepared by the consultant, Nexus Solutions. It’s a public document, but, unfortunately, it’s not shown on the district website, nor has it been made available for public distribution.

Voters should ask for it and look at each project and the cost before voting on May 24. As the saying goes, “the devil is in the detail.”

Why should a new, 670-student elementary school cost $36 million, when it cost $20 million to build Redtail Ridge Elementary, a 670-student school that opened just seven years ago? Why the $16 million increase? Similarly, why does the district want to spend $2.8 million remodeling Redtail Ridge just seven years after it opened?

About $17.1 million is programmed for new and expanded athletic facilities and a new parking lot at the high school. At Hidden Oaks Middle School $664,000 is included for rebuilding the parking lot, a drop-off loop and bus entrance. At Twin Oaks Middle School, the district wants $1.8 million to enlarge the auditorium and add a scene shop and dressing rooms.

How do these expenditures address academic needs? Specifically, how does spending $17.1 million on athletic facilities or $664,000 for a parking lot or $1.8 million for an auditorium improve kids understanding of mathematics, science, philosophy, languages and the humanities or help them research and write an intelligent essay, or develop an open mind and a questioning attitude?

More classrooms and improved security and technology are one thing, but athletic facilities, parking lots, auditoriums and the like demand careful scrutiny and justification, and should be a separate question for voters to approve or disapprove. Regrettably, the referendum comes down to a yes or no, all-or-nothing, $150 million vote. A no vote will send the question back to the school board where, perhaps, more homework is needed.

The district has scheduled information sessions on April 28 at 7 p.m. at the District Services Center and May 4 at 7 p.m. at Prior Lake High School.

Please read more at the Prior Lake American:

John Diers is a Prior Lake resident who spent 40 years working in the transit industry and author of “Twin Cities by Trolley: The Streetcar Era in Minneapolis and St. Paul” and “St. Paul Union Depot.” To submit questions or topics for community columnists, email editor@plamerican.com. (Editor’s note: Diers is a community columnist and not employed by, or paid by, the newspaper.)