Next month, Le Sueur and Henderson residents will have the opportunity to vote on a potentially historic referendum changing the makeup of the Le Sueur-Henderson School District.
If approved, Park Elementary would be demolished and LS-H would transition into a two-building district. If the referendum fails, the district will be challenged to find other means to address falling enrollment and the longstanding maintenance needs of its buildings.
What’s on the ballot
Voters on Nov. 2 will be greeted with two questions on the ballot. The first asks residents to support a pre-K-3 expansion to Le Sueur-Henderson Middle School/High School, renovating Hilltop Elementary School and demolishing Park Elementary School.
The pre-K-3 expansion adds a 78,000-square-foot east wing to Le Sueur-Henderson, consisting of two floors. Pre-k to 1 classrooms would be 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, music room, media center, kitchen, gym, and administrative offices on the ground floor. The second floor includes a lab and both floors feature flexible learning spaces for all grade levels. Fifty-six new parking spaces would be added in front of the new building.
The referendum would also fund deferred maintenance upgrades, remodeling flexible learning spaces into the existing building, and a 14,000-square-foot expansion to the Career and Technical Education (CTE) area.
The CTE expansion would allow the district to start up its own Future Farmers of America (FFA) chapter and provide space for more training equipment. Superintendent Jim Wagner said the access to more equipment would create new opportunities for the district to partner with local businesses and for students to earn apprenticeships.
A Hilltop remodel would address maintenance issues, replace dividers with walls to provide better soundproofing, add a childcare center to the building and flexible learning spaces. These renovations would also allow the building to support future student population growth.
The sum total is $50 million between $38.5 million to expand LS-H, $10.4 million to remodel Hilltop and the remainder to demolish Park.
A second question on the ballot will ask voters to build a multi-purpose fieldhouse on the high school campus. The design contains four basketball courts and a 200m indoor track underneath a fabric roof supported by a rigid steel frame. The district envisions the fieldhouse as a place for both school events, like athletics, and community events, such as fundraisers or weddings. Event rentals would offer a new source of revenue for the district.
The 52,000-square-foot facility would be built north of the middle/high school and add $7.5 million to the bond referendum. It would also cost the district $65,000 to operate.
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. Building the fieldhouse is contingent on the first ballot question passing, so even if the second question passes but voters don’t approve of the two-campus district, the fieldhouse would be scrapped.
If passed, the referendum would nearly double the current levy. For a residential homeowner with a property worth $175,000, the first question alone would add $324 to one’s annual property tax. The fieldhouse would cost another $68, totaling to a $392 tax impact.
But, a regular property tax refund would drive down the same homeowner’s tax bills by $235. After a tax refund, the annual cost is $51.
Farmland owners that take advantage of the Ag2School tax credit could cut down their tax bill attributable to school district debt service by 60%. In 2023, 70% of that bill would be reimbursed by the state, allowing landowners to pay a little less in school property taxes than what they paid in 2017, before the Ag2School tax credit was available.
Why a referendum?
One of the central goals of the referendum is to counter the costs of maintaining aging facilities. Over the past 10 years, the district has spent $1.6 million operating its three buildings.
In total, the district spends $312,000 operating Park at a cost of $1,295 per student at $2.96 per square foot. Hilltop costs $112,000 to operate at $900 per student and $3.92 per square foot. The high school is the most cost-efficient building in the district at $722 per student and $2.28 per square foot at a total $412,000.
Of all the district’s buildings, Park is in the worst condition. Built in the 1930s, Park is the district’s oldest building. The equipment and materials inside average 70 years in age and the wear and tear is showing.
For example, both of Park’s boilers broke in the past five years. The first boiler shut down in 2017 while the second was nonfunctional in the winter of 2020. The school district was charged around $30,000 in both incidents for repairs in addition to external heating.
When the boilers aren’t in disrepair, they are often ineffective or inconsistent in heating the whole building.
“My daughter came home from MCA testing two years ago and she said ‘Mom, we did MCA testing today. The room was so cold I had to wear my winter coat the entire time,’ said School Board member Gretchen Rehm. “So we have kids wearing their winter coats during the state comprehensive testing.”
The elementary school gym is also in poor condition. Due to leaking from the roof, the gym floor is breaking apart. Administration estimates that repairing the roof would cost the district between $5 million and $10 million alone.
Fixing the building’s maintenance needs would come at such a high cost that it surpasses the 60% threshold by the Minnesota Department of Education to support a renovation.
“Our gym space was closed in Park for months,” said Rehm. “There was a big hole; they had to tear it up, because there was a big leak. If you’ve seen the movie “The Money Pit,” that’s pretty much what it is.”
Park was also flooded on Christmas last year. Le Sueur police and fire responded to the scene, and it required nearly a full month’s work by custodial staff to repair the building back into shape.
“We had about 3-4 inches of water in our Kindergarten wing and it was on Christmas Day. By the time they were able to rip out the sheetrock, it was Jan. 15,” said Park Principal Christine McDonald. “We were lucky, because our kids were distance learning due to COVID-19, which allowed us to repair it without impacting instruction even more.”
Rehm said these repairs also take away dollars that could be used for student programming. Budgets for maintenance and school curriculum come out of the general fund. The more money spent on repairs, the less cash available for other needs.
According to district estimates, a passed referendum could save between $55,000 to $70,000.
Even when LS-H isn’t blindsided by flooding or dysfunctional boilers, the general fund is not in a position to support the district’s long-term needs. In May, a projection of the 2021 fiscal year budget anticipated a $200,000 deficit. That projected deficit was at $700,000 in April, and the School Board was considering cutting teachers or closing Hilltop Elementary before federal COVID-19 relief dollars slashed the district’s debt.
Much of the district’s financial insecurity can be traced to declining enrollment. Le Sueur-Henderson has suffered substantial student dropoffs in the past two school years. Between the 2018-19 and 2019-20 school years, estimated enrollment fell by around 40 students (4%), due to smaller incoming kindergarten classes failing to replace larger graduating classes.
The student body shrunk further by approximately 45 students (4.6%) between the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years. Initial estimates predicted a 19 student loss, but COVID-19 is believed to have accelerated the decline.
The loss of a student comes at a substantial cost to the district. State aid, which accounts for nearly 80% of the district’s revenue, assigns a value of $6,567 per pupil unit. A drop in 45 students alone lost the district nearly $30,000. Administration projected a 69 student loss in the next three years.
District leaders view the referendum as an opportunity to compete with other school districts and attract more students in and outside Le Sueur-Henderson with updated facilities, a multi-purpose fieldhouse, flexible learning spaces and an expanded CTE space.
If the referendum fails
In the event voters shoot down the district referendum next month, Rehm said the School Board would likely ask voters to support an operational levy to address the district’s maintenance needs.
“To keep at the capacity that we’re at right now, we’ll probably need more money,” said Rehm. “It just costs so much, it eats so much of our general budget right now.”
In a worst case scenario, Rehm warned that the district may need to bypass voters if they can’t finance maintenance needs to secure student health and safety.
“The School Board can go out for $14 million for health and safety without voter approval to try and fix some things, which is not using your tax dollars efficiently,” said Rehm. “What we’re trying to do here is make sure your tax dollars are spent efficiently and wisely.”
When voting to support the current referendum proposal, the School Board also left the door open to pursue an alternative ballot proposal if the first one fails.
The alternative referendum question discussed last spring would convert LS-H into a pre-K-12 building with a 98,000-square-foot addition and close Hilltop and Park. The same maintenance upgrades from the current referendum question, including the CTE space and fieldhouse, would come along with the addition.
Consolidating into one building would cut the district’s maintenance costs, taxpayers would be on the hook for less, but the referendum would come at the drawback of eliminating the district’s only school in Henderson.
Is the referendum popular enough to pass the ballot? The answer is still uncertain. The best gauge of the referendum’s viability is a school survey conducted before the final question was approved by the School Board.
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 total of 462 people responded to the survey, including 77 from Henderson, 309 from Le Sueur and 76 from outside the two cities.
Since that survey, the district began campaigning for the referendum at multiple public meetings including an informational session at Hilltop on Sept. 29.
Reactions at the Hilltop meeting were varied. One community member said they were impressed with the presentation, while another saw the need to demolish Park Elementary, but said the district should better recognize Henderson’s individual presence.
“It was definitely eye opening for us, because we both went to Park Elementary and we’re sad to see that go,” said Jesse Mueller. “It was really informative for us.”
She and her husband J.R. Mueller were raised in Le Sueur and have a son that’s not yet school age. The couple said they came to the meeting so they could make up their own minds and learn more about the potential programming.
“I’ve been in construction my whole life, and I would like to walk through [Park] and see it for myself,” said J.R. Mueller. “If I don’t see it for myself, I’m not going to believe what they’re saying. I’m not saying it’s not happening, I would just like to see it.”