Owatonna school board

Monday’s meeting attracted an atypically-large audience, several of whom spoke during the public comment portion to commend the board for conducting listening sessions since May’s defeat and incorporating those suggestions into an updated proposal. (Ryan Anderson/People's Press) 

OWATONNA — After a $116 million bond referendum for a new Owatonna High School narrowly failed in May, the Owatonna school district will bring the issue again to voters in November, this time with a lower cost and a second question related to the future of the current OHS site.

The school board voted unanimously Monday to hold a special election Nov. 5. The board had signaled its intentions during a work session Aug. 1, at which Superintendent Jeff Elstad presented a new plan.

If the first question, which seeks $104 million to construct a new Owatonna High School, succeeds, voters could also authorize another $8 million to re-purpose the current site on a second question. The May referendum included $3 million to, if necessary, demolish the current high school site.

This new proposal sets aside $3 million to partially renovate some of the current site, while a second question would provide up to $8 million for a more comprehensive remodel that would include moving district operations to that site, Elstad said. If that occurred, the district would sell the Bridge Street building and Rose Street edifice to consolidate.

On a $175,000 residence — the median home price in Owatonna — the tax for a $104 million bond would be $194 per year, $16.16 per month, over 25 years, which the board opted for, as opposed to $238 per year, or $19.83 per month, over 20 years. The board also selected 25 years for the second question, which, if approved, would add $17 per year, $1.42 per month, on a domicile valued at $175,000, rather than $21 per year, $1.75 per month, over 20 years.

If both questions are approved Nov.5, a family with a $175,000 home would pay an additional $17.58 per month. For the sake of comparison, the additional tax on that same home would have been $23 per month under the May proposal.

While a community task force would play a substantial role in ultimately deciding how the current OHS site evolves following a move by students and staff to a new location, one possibility is to move all district operations into the C Plaza, constructed in 1998, and to use the vocational and Ag building for storage, as the Rose Street facility is currently “in some disrepair,” Elstad said. The underground plazas, plagued by water mitigation issues, would be removed.

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 antiquated OHS. 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, as well as safety and security concerns, site size limitations, and outdated learning spaces.

Under the May plan, a new OHS, which the district would’ve hoped to open in the summer of 2022, would have been roughly 342,000-square-feet, served a capacity of 1,700 students, included five courts in its gymnasium, a 900-seat auditorium with stage and support spaces for music and theater, a multi-use sports stadium with turf and seating for 3,000, and assorted modern classrooms amenities. It would’ve boasted a secure main entrance adjacent to the main office, adequate commons areas for lunch seating — the current cafeteria doesn’t have enough seats for students in any of the four lunch periods — and hosting community events, a media center, and distinct bus and parent drop-off areas for the safety of students and adults. 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.

In the updated plan, savings are found by reducing square footage — constructing a 300,000-square-foot high school for 1,600, rather than 340,000-square-feet for 1,700, students — having a four-court gym rather than five courts, and the fact the district has been approached by a local business partner who would purchase the land for a new OHS. Companies who pledged funds for the May referendum — $22 million — have also re-upped for this second attempt.

Should the high school’s enrollment swell over 1,600 consistently — and that wouldn’t occur for at least a decade, based on the latest population projections — a new high school could be added onto, Elstad said. That isn’t possible at the current site, because it’s far too small, based on Minnesota Department of Education guidelines, and landlocked.

Monday’s meeting attracted an atypically large audience, several members of whom spoke during the public comment portion to commend the board for conducting listening sessions since May’s defeat and incorporating those suggestions into an updated proposal.

“We’ve listened and looked back at all the feedback,” Elstad said. “I believe this recommendation is the right way to realize […] our commitment to 21st Century learning.”

There’s “broad support” at the chamber for a new high school, said Brad Meier, president/CEO of the chamber. Local companies of all sizes are hungry for qualified workers, and those individuals will “come from somewhere,” but unless this community can send students with the requisite skills into the workforce, those employees won’t be from Owatonna.

“Kids need to see, touch, and feel what their employment opportunities are going to be like,” Meier said. “Quality facilities are part of a quality education system.”

Local companies have demonstrated their support by pledging millions of dollars for a new OHS, and they’ll no doubt contribute equipment, too, to outfit the building, said Tom Kuntz, Owatonna’s mayor. “We need our children to have quality, state-of-the-art education.”

While the vast preponderance of public commenters endorsed a November election for a new OHS, there was one detractor, Dale Fairbanks, who said the board was “rushing into” a vote this fall. He also suggested reviving the taskforce.

There’s “too much of a hurry,” he said. “Teachers teach students,” not buildings.

Bonds, of course, are “for buildings,” while “levies are for learning,” and though the district will need to renew — or increase — the current levy, which expires in June of 2021, the high school’s needs are “paramount” because of the “lack of educational relevance” the current facility provides to students, Elstad said. Following May’s defeat, Elstad asked for advice from a dozen community members, some of whom opposed the May bond, some of whom approved of it, and some of whom were in the middle, and they all agreed this latest effort is “a strong proposal.”

“Thank you for listening to the community, for analyzing results of a professional survey, and seeking out all voices of community members,” Mark Sebring, chairman of the school board, told Elstad Monday. Since May’s defeat, Elstad has been “tenacious,” and it’s been “an exemplary display of leadership.”

Elstad’s latest recommendation “prioritizes the future education of students and staff in Owatonna and affords the community an opportunity to re-purpose the existing high school,” Sebring added. “This is an admirable proposal.”

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

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