Divided and undecided, the members of the Le Sueur-Henderson School Board debated with each other and themselves for an hour before casting a pivotal vote on the future of the district.
The board was presented with, and torn between, two potential referendum questions — ask voters to support a two-building district at Hilltop and LS-H Middle/High School with a new PreK-3 wing or push for a single district, PreK-12 expansion to Le Sueur Henderson MS/HS.
The decision did not come easily to the School Board. The directors weighed the results of a community survey, the costs of each package, the potential impact on enrollment, which proposal was most likely to pass and which referendum question served the needs of Le Sueur and Henderson students the best.
After two failed motions, the School Board finally voted 4-1 in favor of a November referendum asking voters to support a two-building district and renovations to Hilltop and LS-H at an estimated cost of $50 million. Brigid Tuck, Matt Hathaway, Gretchen Rehm and Brian Sorenson voted in favor of the referendum question, while Joe Roby voted against it and supported a single-building district.
What’s on the ballot
If the Le Sueur and Henderson communities were to vote in favor of the referendum, both Hilltop and the middle/high school would see renovations, while Park Elementary would be shut down and demolished.
In a proposed referendum option detailed at a facilities task force meeting last May, an east wing would be added to LS-H, but only for grades pre-k to 3. The addition would be 78,000 square feet, with pre-k to 1 classrooms on the ground floor and grades 2-3 and special education on the second floor.
The proposed layout also features kids club and child care spaces, an art room and music room, a media center, a kitchen, a gym, and district and administrative offices all on the ground floor. A lab would be located on the second floor, and both floors would feature flexible learning spaces for all grade levels. Fifty-six new parking spaces would be added in front of the new building.
On top of the pre-k to 3 addition, the referendum would fund deferred maintenance upgrades, remodeling to add flexible learning spaces to the existing building, and a 14,000-square-foot expansion to the Career and Technical Education (CTE) area.
The renovations to LS-H would cost around $38.5 million, while the revamp of Hilltop would cost $10.4 million. Combined with Park demolition costs, taxpayers would spend approximately $51 million to finance the two-campus option.
The above charges would nearly double the current levy. In addition to the $110 currently paid by the average homeowner in the district, a passed referendum would add $99 in annual property tax paid to the district starting 2022. Savings from closing down Park Elementary would amount to approximately $51,000 a year.
A second question on the ballot will ask voters if they want to build a fieldhouse on the Le Sueur-Henderson campus. The proposed design contains four basketball courts and a 200m indoor track, intended to serve as both a draw to new families and to the community at large. The district envisioned the fieldhouse as a place for both school and community events, which could potentially raise revenues for the district.
The 52,000-square-foot facility would be built north of the middle/high school at a cost of $7.1 million, with a $65,000 operating cost to the district. As a second question on the ballot, voters could choose to support the two-campus district and the fieldhouse, only fund the two school buildings and scrap the fieldhouse, or reject both options.
In his first regular School Board meeting, new Superintendent Jim Wagner was tasked with delivering his own recommendation to the directors. Wagner ultimately pushed for the board to put the two-building option on the ballot.
One of the central goals of the referendum is to counter the costs of maintaining aging facilities, which have cost the district $1.6 million over the past 10 years in operating costs.
While Park is long past its lifespan, said Wagner, Hilltop could be refurbished with 21st century features while spending $2 million more on the project over a single district. Utilities have suffered wear and tear in all three buildings, but Park Elementary has aged the worst. The average age of the equipment and materials inside is 70 years and more than a third of the building’s assets have been flagged as being cause for alarm.
Unlike Park, which is well past its lifespan, said Wagner, it’s still financially feasible to support and renovate Hilltop Elementary.
“There’s a perception by a few that Hilltop is in a situation of dire straits, and it’s not; the building itself is in great shape,” said Wagner. “The building itself is easy to refurbish and also add on small parts to. From a financial standpoint, based on the cost of the building, it would make no sense to abandon it.”
The superintendent also believed maintaining Hilltop was an important piece retaining students from both the Le Sueur and Henderson communities. Open enrollment outside the district and shrinking kindergarten class sizes have caused state funding to plummet. Since the 2018-19 school year, the district has lost 88 students, a whopping 8.6% of total enrollment. In the next three years, the district projects a loss of 69 kids.
Many families in Henderson are already choosing schools other than LS-H. Not only does the district lose potential students to schools outside the district, it also faces competition from the Minnesota New County School in Henderson. If Henderson parents had to send their kids seven miles across the river to a single campus, they may start to prefer other options, said Wagner.
“In Henderson, you have three options: open enrollment, charter school and Hilltop, and it breaks down to a third, a third and a third,” said Wagner. “The district has to take ownership and get students back and work with staff to change that. If you have two buildings growing instead of one, you have a little more flexibility and more opportunities for growth. We should be spreading the wealth around, we want to be as big as we can.”
A realizable referendum
Uncertainty still lingered among the board after the superintendent’s recommendation. While a two-building option would please the Henderson community, the district would need the support of the much larger Le Sueur population to pass the referendum. According to a survey by the school district, more respondents preferred a single-building district to a two-building district.
When asked if they would be in favor of a bond that replaced Park Elementary and refurbished Hilltop, a plurality of respondents (46%) said “No,” while approximately 44% supported it. A 52% majority of those surveyed supported a PreK-12 district at Le Sueur-Henderson, while 44% were opposed. A total of 462 people responded to the survey, including 77 from Henderson, 309 from Le Sueur and 76 from outside the two cities.
School Board member Joe Roby said the survey supported his own observations — that only one of the referendum questions was likely to pass. Steadfast in his support for a single-building district, Roby stated that the district was at a turning point and couldn’t afford to lose momentum if the referendum failed.
“One thing that I’ve thought about, and something I’ve heard from community members, is they realize it’s a turning point at which we stand,” said Roby. “The most important element to me is making sure we can pass this and given this district’s history of passing any referendum, even an operating levy to continue running the schools, it’s not an easy thing to do. So for me, the most important thing is we get something to pass. And while the survey was one piece of many, it cements for me that in order to get something to pass it needs to be a one-building solution.”
Roby added that he couldn’t ask voters to back the more expensive option of maintaining two buildings, given the years of cost-cutting to support the district. Falling enrollment has left the district with a $500,000 deficit. In the event that the board would go out for an operating referendum to support the district, an operating levy to fund two buildings would be heftier than a tax increase to support one.
“Every year, we are pinching pennies tighter and tighter, and I can’t in good faith go to the voters and say ‘Here’s the more expensive option’ when we look under couch cushions in the teachers lounge,” said Roby.
The board debates
The School Board was faced with not only deciding what referendum question to place on the ballot, but when to have the referendum. Initially, the School Board planned on a November referendum, but as the date approaches, some questioned if it would be better to push the election off until February 2022.
“Given all that, and desire to do it right and deliver something that would pass, between that and political climate right now, I think it would be best to keep the district out of November politics,” said School Board member Matt Hathaway.
Directors Brigid Tuck and Matthew Sorenson proposed holding the referendum in November, but the motion was defeated 3-2, with Hathaway, Roby and Rehm voting against. After the vote, Roby presented an alternate motion — hold the election in February and put a single-district school building on the ballot. Hathaway seconded the motion, and shared similar concerns that only a single-building district would pass.
Wagner remained firm in his recommendation and told the School Board they should not be afraid of failure. If the two-building proposal failed in November, the board could turn around and put a one-building option on the ballot in February.
Many of the board members found themselves caught in the middle and requested extra time to make up their minds. Tuck was torn between giving Henderson voters a chance to keep Hilltop operational and pushing a referendum with the best chance of passing.
“Part of me feels Henderson deserves an opportunity to have this question on the ballot,” said Tuck. “It’s ultimately between voters in the district; it’s not us deciding. Part of me feels like putting it on the ballot and seeing where voters are, but we don’t have a lot of time to regroup. Time is of the essence.”
Member Rehm visibly struggled with casting a vote, unsure whether to back the single-building option she felt was best for the district or the two-building option that she felt would best keep both communities together.
“I’m struggling, because I know what’s best for our kids, what’s best for our taxpayers as well, but I want to exhaust every avenue that we have,” said Rehm.
After much discussion, Roby put an end to the debate and called for a vote. Roby and Tuck voted in favor of a single-building referendum in February, but Sorenson, Hathaway and Rehm defeated the motion 3-2. Despite initially favoring the single district, Hathaway said he was swayed by Wagner’s arguments and supported the superintendent’s recommendation.
Hathaway and Tuck then motioned to put the two-building question on the ballot in November. In the event it fails, the board would plan on holding another referendum in February. Hathaway, Tuck, Sorenson and Rehm backed the two-building vote while Roby opposed. The board later unanimously supported adding the fieldhouse as a second question.