referendum talk

Administrators and members of the Owatonna school board discussed public feedback Monday from a community listening session last week regarding the narrowly defeated bond referendum for a new Owatonna High School. (Ryan Anderson/People’s Press)

OWATONNA — As administrators and members of the Owatonna school board discussed public feedback Monday from a community listening session last week regarding the narrowly defeated bond referendum for a new Owatonna High School, the main takeaway for many was simply a lack of consensus.

Under heading after heading, one suggestion from the public “says we should go right,” and the second “says go left,” said Mark Sebring, chairman of the school board. “So many contradictory thoughts” mean “lack of a sense of direction” from the community.

However, Sebring and others were able to divine some overarching themes from that June 3 public input event, predominantly queries regarding “where” and the “the look” of a new Owatonna High School, he said. Those “are the prevailing questions that seem to be asked.”

Indeed, a desire for “pictures, drawings, and illustrations” was foremost in Lori Weisenburger’s group last week, the vice chair of the school board said Monday. That could also include links to current high schools in the state upon which a new OHS might be modeled.

Those in Michelle Krell’s group “were looking for a lot more specifics,” said the district’s director of teaching and learning. “They want to know where.”

In Deb McDermott-Johnson’s group last week, at least 100 individuals mentioned incorporating the iconic façade of OHS into a new edifice, said the director of community education for Owatonna Public Schools. Individuals also expressed the need for more storage space and an expanded auditorium that would accommodate those with disabilities.

The public will have another opportunity to discuss a new high school at a 6 p.m. listening session June 25, likely again at Owatonna Middle School, and at that meeting, the district plans to provide a handout with answers to some frequently asked questions in an effort to educate and dispel myths, said Jeff Elstad, Owatonna’s superintendent. The final session, likely July 10, will be when listening “will move into strategy.”

Since the bond’s failure by slightly more than 100 votes May 14, Elstad has consistently asked himself, “How did we miss?”

He does know communication and trust will be paramount moving forward, he said. “It does come back to trust.”

Elstad is frustrated by the way some voters blame this administration and school board for what some view as missteps decades ago, when a completely different regime was in charge, he said. “I feel like we’re guilty until proven innocent sometimes.”

Sebring has also noticed a recent shift, because he’d never before heard about trust issues between the community and the school board prior to the bond referendum, he said. Since then, however, he’s heard numerous times “we don’t trust you.”

Transparency could be pivotal in rebuilding that trust, as the community also wants to know more about the fate of the current OHS if and when a new edifice is constructed, Jolayne Mohs, the board treasurer, said Monday. In her group last week, participants wondered, “What’s the plan after there is a new high school?”

People also weren’t as informed as they ought to be about Career Pathways, the new model of education OHS is transitioning toward, said Amanda Heilman, the district’s director of finance, who was the transcriber in a group focused on the future of education last week. “More education on that piece would be valuable.”

With Career Pathways, freshmen would concentrate on developing a plan for an area of study for grades 10-12, as well as career awareness and exploration, social/personal growth, and academic readiness. As sophomores, they’d select one of three areas of study: engineering, manufacturing, and agriscience; business, communications, and information technology; or health sciences and human services.

Students would continue to take required core classes during their high school tenures, and “global studies” — like world languages, music, and the arts — would be open to all students. OHS is patterning this system after the Career Pathways utilized to grand effect in high schools like Alexandria’s, which OHS staff members have toured multiple times.

As seniors, students would complete a capstone experience in their pathway. Capstone possibilities will include an internship, mentorship, capstone course, and iStudy project.

Roughly 100 residents provided comments and asked questions related to nine overarching topics on June 3: the existing edifice, communication with community, taxes and cost, business partnerships, proposed location of a new OHS, building plans, amenities, security and maintenance, and Career Pathways/the future of education.

For the security and maintenance group, “the bottom line is accessibility,” said Bob Olson, the district’s director of buildings and grounds, who transcribed for that contingent last Monday. “Students and adults with mobility issues struggle to get around that school.”

“Another big one was cost of operating a new building versus the cost of running our current building,” he said. The “hope” is that a new building “would be more efficient.”

A breakdown of costs associated with a new high school was inquired about repeatedly in the group discussing taxes and cost, said Wold Architects and Engineers Sal Bagley. They were also concerned with the onerous burden on Ag land owners for school bonds — although that’s the case throughout the state, not unique to this referendum or district — as well as the impact it would have on those with fixed incomes.

By a margin of 5,762 to 5,642, or 50.52% to 49.47%, voters defeated a bond May 14 that would have led to the construction of a new high school to replace the aged current model. A volunteer community task force met several times in 2018 and ultimately recommended a new high school be built to replace the current model, which has a litany of issues due to its advanced age, including deferred maintenance needs of roughly $35 million.

Pledges from a number of local companies, including a promise of $20 million in cash from Federated Insurance, lowered the bill for taxpayers on the bond from $138 million to $116 million, and the Owatonna Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism expressed unalloyed support for referendum passage, as well.

There are five days throughout the year in Minnesota when districts can run building bond referendums, and the next possible date for Owatonna Public Schools in 2019 would be in November. To make that date, the district would have to send building plans to the Minnesota Department of Education for review and comment by Aug. 23.

“We’re still in listening mode,” however, Sebring said Monday. “We’re not yet in solution mode.”

Reach Reporter Ryan Anderson at 507-444-2376 or follow him on Twitter @randerson_ryan.

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