Pay now or pay later as aging schools need overhaul

The future of the Langdon Area elementary and high school buildings will be decided on Tuesday, October 1 as the board asks the citizens of the Langdon Area School District to approve a substantial building mill levy increase. This will be a deciding factor in the health and longevity of the over 50 year old facilities. The LASD school board voted to pursue a 12 mill increase to their building fund at their July meeting after meeting with CTS Group senior account executive Mark Bucholz who explained that with the proposed improvements, the school would see a savings of $1 million with more energy efficient and modern heating and cooling systems.

Posted 9/19/19

By Melissa Anderson

Tunnel Entrance in Library. Air flows through these tunnels to heat classrooms. Air is only filtered before entering these tunnels, “NO” additional filtering downstream. These would be eliminated ,and the moist, moldy air would be eliminated.

“The time has come for our district to upgrade and replace some areas of our buildings in an energy and cost efficient manner. This will meet today’s standards for the safety, health, and well-being of our students and staff,” the board said.

A steering committee was formed that composed of board members: Dawn Kruk, Chris Olson, Steve Olson (building and maintenance committee members) and community members Elizabeth Sillers, Dennis Throndset, Kimberly Hart, Dawn Roppel and Nick Moser. The board members were already familiar with the task at hand, and the community members were approached with the importance of the work needing to be done to the schools. They were quick to realize the consequences if not addressed quickly.

“When I was asked to be on the committee, I said yes because I value education and kids. I really want good air quality and lighting for our staff and children. This is of great importance,” Dawn Roppel said.

The elementary school was built in 1965 and the high school in 1969 making both buildings over 50 years old. Since being constructed, no major improvements have been made to the cooling and heating systems within the elementary school, leaving the facility in a precarious position as its boilers “are on their last legs”. After so many years of service and repair, the question is not if the boilers go out but when.

“Buildings that are 50 and 55 years old have needs. Just as a human body has needs as it ages, the school buildings are no different,” Dennis Throndset said.

“They keep limping it through, but it’s just a matter of time. Thank God they have the back up, because if they [boilers] both failed at the same time, it could shut the school down. That’s the worst part,” Nick Moser stated.

The boilers are not the only concerns at the elementary school as the aged unit ventilators in the school circulate air from the wet tunnels. The elementary school often feels damp as a result of the excessive humid conditions within the tunnels and having very little airflow and temperature control. Add in the corroded hot water piping and various different types of thermostats in the school and the conditions become very uncomfortable for students and staff, not to mention dangerous.

“Right now the air circulation for the school runs though tunnels underneath the school. The air is filtered and then forced through the tunnels to the heat registers. The tunnels get wet with ground water, are dirty and are smelly. This is not a great environment for our fresh air to be pushed through,” commented Chris Olson.

“When I saw for myself the tunnel air flow systems in the elementary school, I was very concerned. These tunnels are dank, dark, and at risk for stagnant water which we all know creates mold and mildew issues, which can affect allergies, asthma and general well-being. A teacher should not have to use air fresheners or candles to mask poor air quality. Also, air forced from dirty tunnels could certainly carry with it the deadly gas radon, which is common in North Dakota,” added Elizabeth Sillers.

It is not just the elementary school receiving some critical updates. At the high school, the outdated heating, cooling, and ventilation (HVAC) systems are in need of attention to make them more energy efficient and consistent throughout the building. Both locations will also receive improved security. Currently, at both facilities, the staff have no visual of those entering the buildings to screen for safety so secure entrances are a need.

As the buildings sit now, they are assessed at a replacement of nearly $40 million. The board has been looking at ways to improve the conditions of the learning environment for the students of LASD for several years. It was only four years ago that a survey conducted by LASD had approximately 70 percent of respondents supporting the use of both buildings instead of pursuing construction of a new joint building.

“The school board has proposed other solutions to the problems, including having the elementary and high schools in one building, however, 70 percent of voters wanted continued use of both buildings,” Sillers said. “We have now come to a point of desperation in getting the buildings up to modern standards regarding air quality, temperature/humidity control, entryway safety and energy efficiency…the longer we wait on solving the identified problems, the higher costs will go.”

Costs to upgrade and replace aging materials and operating systems increases from 5 to 7 percent every year. The proposed upgrades to the schools is currently estimated by CTS Group to be approximately $5 million if construction were to begin in 2020.

Currently, LASD receives 3 mills to pay for general yearly maintenance to the facilities. In order to be able to fund such a massive project, LASD is asking citizens to approve a 12 mill increase to the building levy. This would bring the total building mill level to 15 mills which, by law, the funds from these additional 12 mills can only be used to pay for the capital improvement projects.

“The Langdon Area School Board decided to bring this vote to the people as it is their belief that addressing the multiple issues of deferred maintenance and refurbishment could most effectively and efficiently be addressed as one large project rather than multiple small projects,” LASD Superintendent Daren Christianson stated.

LASD has a current taxable valuation of just over $37 million with one mill raising approximately $37,000. The current building fund levy of 3 mills raises approximately $111,000 per year. This vote will generate additional funding that will be strictly used to pay for the project loan, generating approximately $446,000 a year, until the 2034-2035 school year. The board has placed a sunset clause on the mill increase to expire after 15 years. At that time, the building levy will be reduced to just 5 mills.

“Essentially it might not take the whole 15 years to pay it off, it could take 10 years, it could take 12 years. The goal is to pay the principal off instead of paying extra interest so we can keep the cost down for the tax payers in the long run,” Moser explained.

“The increase in mill levy is set to cover the cost and then will drop back down. We are a conservative community that tends not to risk increases in taxes. Living, in general, is expensive, and people may fear that this will be one more gouge to their pocketbooks,” Sillers said.

The current estimate presented by CTS Group has the loan taking the full 15 years to repay at the 12 mill rate. When looking at the bare bone facts of the vote, seeing that the board is asking to triple their mill levy, may be a shock and have many saying no way immediately. However, when broken down on an individual basis, many may see that their actual tax increase will be very manageable. The taxable value of a property is found by taking the “true and full” value of a property and then multiplying that by the taxable rate for the property type. For residential properties in the district, the rate is 4.5 percent while property deemed agricultural or commercial has a taxable rate of 5 percent.

The “mill rate” is $1 per every $1,000 of the taxable value or 0.001 percent. For a property that has a taxable value of $9,000 the mill rate for that property would be $9 per mill requested. A resident with this as a taxable value can find how much their taxes will be, in addition to the already released estimate, by multiplying the value of each mill by the total number of mills requested. In this instance, the request for an additional 12 mills (0.012) at the $9 per mill rate would result in additional $108 to that resident’s taxes.

LASD will be depending on the highly valuable agricultural and commercial properties, however, to do the heavy lifting of funding. With well over half a million acres designated as agricultural within the district, the school will depend on agriculture to support the future of the facilities.

Members of the steering committee believe the school board has been transparent in the costs to the public for the project and the mill levy tax increase values. They hope the citizens of the district will feel more confident knowing the real facts and figures laid out before them. The priority and purpose of this vote is keeping the health and appearance of the buildings at modern standards that provide students not only with a good learning environment but enables the district to be attractive to families searching for a great place for their children to grow up with every advantage. Make your vote matter on October 1.

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