Bertrang answers questions on referendum

NEW ULM – The final public information meeting on the District 88 Building Referendum was held Tuesday at the District Administration Center Auditorium.

On the Aug. 12 primary ballot residents will vote whether the district should authorize a building bond of $46.9 million to build a new high school and remodel Jefferson, Washington and the current high school.

Superintendent Jeff Bertrang highlighted the district’s needs as appropriate classrooms for required programs, recommended movement space, updated technology, secure entrances and safe bus loading zones.

Bertrang addressed concerns brought up in previous meetings. He said the district is not responsible for setting the tax rate. However, several individuals cited the uneven distribution of the taxes falling on Ag Land.

A farmer said that he had benefited from the school district and would like to see a new school, but he felt the school was over spending. “I’d would much rather see this district go together with Sleepy Eye and get a new amount of tax base in here.”

In response, another person asked how this current plan could be cut. The only specific cost cut suggested was attempting to update the former middle school, which was closed in 2007.

Bertrang would later explain that making the Middle School compliant would cost $12 million and would not provide any additional athletic space. Upgrades would only alleviate some the space issue in the current high school. Other speakers questioned whether the district was truly living within its means.

Bertrang stated the current option being proposed was one of 10 options discussed by the District Task Force last winter. One option called for a $100 million school that was dismissed as too extreme, but the option of doing nothing was also dismissed. The superintendent believed this plan focused on current needs as well as future requirements. “This is not a Taj Mahal plan,” said Bertrang.

Former Task Force member, Dr. Ann Vogel, said the proposed new building was not luxurious. On upgrading the Middle School, Vogel felt throwing money into a building that was nearly 100 years old was a poor investment.

“This is an investment in the future. … I understand that people think they are unfairly being asked for funds, but I cannot think of a better place for people to put their money to benefit generations of the future,” Vogel said.

A cost breakdown was given on how the $46.9 million would be used. The construction of the new building and upgrade of the old buildings would total $36 million. The cost for permits, surveys, inspections, designs, and utility hookups would cost $6 million. Three million would be needed interior materials such as desks, smart boards, etc. The final $1.4 million would be interests and capital costs.

The $36 million includes additions to Jefferson estimated at $465,000 and the remodel will cost $394,000. At Washington the remodel will cost $753,000. The existing high school’s conversion to a Middle School would cost $550,000. The new building is estimated to cost $25.5 million. The grounds and athletic fields surrounding the facility are estimated at around $5 million.

The superintendent also shot down rumors that the district intended to add a hockey rink or a swimming pool.

Some residents disputed whether the district had sufficient growth for the project.

The district’s projections, based on Brown County trends and well as a study of the population of infants to four-year-old kids in the district, show an increase in kindergarten enrollment for the next four years. Projections for this coming fall are 155-160 students. The class sizes also tend to see an increase in the seventh and ninth grades due to students transferring from the parochial schools.

These figures were questioned by a few speakers, who believed New Ulm’s overall population had been decreasing since 2000.

One woman defending the district’s numbers said, “I moved a year ago. A couple other people just moved here along with our kids, and if the referendum does not pass I don’t know that I’ll stay. I want my kids to be in a good school.” The speaker also supported the need for more space saying, “I don’t want my seventh-grade, 5-foot tall daughter going to school with a 7-foot senior.”

The subject of previous referendums was raised by an individual. According to the figures presented, the district owes $8.1 million on outstanding bonds. In 2016, a bond in the amount of $1.4 million will expire followed by another smaller $313,400 bond in 2017. A third bond will be going until 2028.

Financial Adviser for the District Patricia Heminover, clarified that the School District has the option to issue bonds up to 30 years. Heminover stated that the various bonds could be issued in two different years to give the district a slight break to avoid further interest and give a decrease to the property tax. After eight years the district could have the option of refinancing if the savings are at least three percent.

Other concerns included the operating expense, which Bertrang assured the public the school had considered operating expenses prior to coming to the public with the referendum. “We wouldn’t be here if we could not operate,” he said.

One of the last questions asked was why the vote was scheduled during the primary rather than in November. The question was from an individual who believed the district had chosen the August date to take advantage of lower voter turnout. Bertrang repeated statements made during the Hanska public meeting, saying the district did not want the referendum to be overlooked on the November ballot and in the event of a “yes” vote, the district wanted three extra months to work on construction planning.

It was also pointed out that current voter turnout for the Aug. 12 primary was unpredictable because a change in voting laws allows for absentee voting at anytime.

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