Off the failure to pass a $50 million bond referendum to create a two building school district, the Le Sueur-Henderson School Board has rallied around a proposal to convert LS-H into a single-campus district.
A consensus emerged around the proposal at a work session Nov. 15, where board members discussed why the prior bond referendum failed to earn community support. The price tag of adding a K-3 wing to Le Sueur-Henderson Middle/High School and renovating Hilltop Elementary was too much for many to stomach.
But several members of the board believed the issue wasn’t just how much money was being spent, it was where the money was spent. In conversations with community members following the referendum, School Board Member Joe Roby said that half the Le Sueur residents he talked to were agreeable to the sum total, but they didn’t believe the district should continue investing in Hilltop Elementary.
“People would be willing to invest money into the district if they believe in it,” said Roby. “They see good things happening around the district. They can swallow it, but not what the money is being used for.”
School Board Chair Brigid Tuck said she heard similar things from Le Sueur residents who questioned why the district wanted to spend money on Hilltop.
Henderson support for the referendum also fell well below the School Board’s expectations. The community split narrowly in favor of the referendum, with 216 residents voting in favor and 199 voting against. The referendum question was positioned as a way to keep Hilltop in the district instead of pursuing a single=campus district.
“I was very disappointed with the support in Henderson. I fought pretty hard at the board to get that question on there at various points throughout,” said School Board Director Gretchen Rehm. “Looking at the yes votes, I now believe that we have to look at a K-12-on-one-site school district.”
After talks with Henderson residents, Roby believed support for school buildings in both communities wasn’t as strong as it once was.
“In conversation with Henderson residents, we’re 30 years in now; our kids are LS-H kids now,” said Roby. “We’re a generation plus removed from this river battle, and now we just want what’s best for our kids. Twenty years ago, it might have been different, but we want what’s best for our kids at this point.”
A new plan
Gary Benson, director of project planning with Kraus Anderson, advised the district to narrow its focus for this new referendum. The consultant believed that the $50 million bond was too expensive for the community to support and investing bond money in Hilltop would be unpopular.
Instead, Benson suggested a lower cost referendum in the $30 million or $40 million range primed around replacing Park Elementary with a new elementary addition. Kraus Anderson could then break down the costs of maintenance upgrades and new features like an expanded Career and Technical Education (CTE) space. This would allow the School Board to pick and choose which elements should be included in the referendum question until they reach a price point that would hopefully still appeal to the community.
“We need to match a total dollar amount with a scope of work that rings true,” said Benson. “I think Park should be replaced altogether, and I don’t think anybody thinks money should be invested at the old Park.”
After a discussion, all School Board members in attendance supported bringing pre-K-5 students to one location. Five of the six members supported a pre-K-5 expansion to Le Sueur-Henderson Middle/High School. Board member Steve Cross agreed the district should move elementary students out of Hilltop, but expressed hesitancy at grouping all students in one location.
“I was never a fan of pre-K-12 in one location, going to school at the same spot. Change is scary, whether it’s Park or Hilltop or the Middle School/High School,” said Cross. “I think Hilltop is out of the question, but I don’t know if a K-5 at Park near the playground and baseball field area and swapping that with where the school is [works] as a potential option. Whether it’s [at LS-H] or at the Park location, K-5 in one location.”
What happens to the Hilltop building if the referendum passes is still undecided. Superintendent Jim Wagner suggested the building could be converted into an alternative learning center, serving the needs of students who have trouble performing in a traditional classroom. In the fiscal year 2018, 16% of Minnesota public school students receive ALC services.
Wagner said the 70s era design of Hilltop was perfectly suited for an alternative learning center, so the district would not need to dedicate any referendum dollars for the transition. It also has more space than the Ziebarth Alternative Learning Center in Le Sueur and could serve students from nearby areas, like Belle Plaine, to generate revenue for Le Sueur-Henderson.
“I’ve worked in an ALC in my former life as a teacher, and this building is designed like an ALC,” said Wagner. “And inside of it, you could still have early childhood, and if you want to have a discussion on that, some ALC students are young parents … In some cases, they don’t have childcare. They’re trying to get their high school diploma, and now you have a place where you can offer daycare right there. You can open that up to neighboring districts, and it generates more revenue, because we would be collecting open enrollment from the other districts.”
The School Board is aiming to approve a referendum question by the end of January. The ballot could also include a second referendum question. Board member Kelsey Schwartz suggested the district could separate a bond request for a renovated CTE space into a second question to keep the price tag of the first referendum question lower.
The vote itself won’t be held until August 2022, but Benson advised the district to settle on a referendum question by January, so they could file it for state approval before spring and begin a drip feed campaign in the months before the referendum.
Board members expressed frustration with misconceptions and misinformation shared over social media and desired to take a more proactive approach answering community questions.
Among their chief concerns was the community not understanding why the district wanted to replace Park Elementary. The building is the oldest in the district and carries its most critical maintenance needs, including two aging boilers that broke down within the last five years and a leaking roof above the gym.
Operational spending at Park Elementary costs the district more per student than any other building. In total, the district spends $312,000 operating Park at a cost of $1,295 per student at $2.96 per square foot.
Board members were also concerned about a community perception that the district would fall behind on maintaining new facilities funded by the referendum.
“A lot of the general public doesn’t understand that you just can’t go to the bank and borrow money like we do for our homes. We don’t bring in enough money on revenues, because there really isn’t a whole lot of revenues in schools to build that really big, long-term facility maintenance,” said Rehm. “When we go for these bonds we’re trying to fill that bucket of money for future repairs and I think we need to elaborate on that.”