School building projects get “No” from voters

The Langdon Area School District is back to the drawing board on how to update the elementary school’s aging heating system as well as other improvements in both school buildings. The most recent attempt to gain the funding necessary for the improvement to the school building took place on Tuesday, October 1. The measure to increase the building levy by 12 mills failed to reach the necessary super majority by just seven votes, as the district joins an ever-increasing number of schools trying to find ways to make old school buildings last longer.

Posted 10/3/19

By Melissa Anderson

“I think getting 60 percent of a public group to agree on adding property taxes is a difficult thing to make happen. I think there is some belief that property tax is an unfair way to fund schools and school projects. Property tax is the only avenue currently available to school districts to raise funds at this time,” LASD superintendent Daren Christianson said. “With the state bearing a larger burden of the cost for educating students, I think there is some thought that the state should share in the burden of building, remodeling and refurbishing schools.”

For both the school board members and the members of the steering committee that advocated for the measure, the near-miss is extremely disappointing. Despite having a high voter turnout for the measure, with preliminary numbers showing 552 citizens casting a ballot, it was still not enough to reach the state century code requirement of 60 percent.

“I feel it is very disappointing that the vote failed, but I wasn’t shocked. There are many schools throughout our state that are older and having similar issues to what we are having. They are also having a hard time to get votes to pass to help their school districts,” steering committee, building committee, and school board member Chris Olson stated.

As the steering committee comes to terms with the loss, they are also reviewing their efforts to determine if anything could have been done differently to show just how badly these improvements needed to happen.  Questions such as “Who else could we have reached? What did people not understand? Could we have done more to get the word out? Do we need more meetings?” have been expressed, but no clear answer is readily available.

“Our children and teachers deserve to have a safe and healthy place to work and go to school. We don’t have room to house them at the high school, so I am not sure what the answer will be. It is hard to keep band-aids on when you really need a tourniquet,” Dawn Roppel, a member of the steering committee, said.

For steering committee member and former LASD school administrator Dennis Throndset, the failure is an emotional and stunning setback. While Throndset is unsure how the students of LASD feel, he is sure that “those in the upper grades are quite dismayed and feeling somewhat rejected”. For the younger students in elementary school, the outcome of the vote may mean little to them as they do not understand the voting process. However, Throndset knows that it will be those kids who will be affected the most by the measure’s failure. Throndset explained that when their learning environment is upset by a non-functioning boiler system,  their education and performance will suffer.

“I commend and thank voters that did support the proposal,” Throndset said.

The efforts to inform the community on what would be done and why came in a few forms. One was a flyer listing all the necessary information regarding the project that was sent to almost all families with children attending school in the school district and was available at both schools and distributed at local businesses along with additional flyers spread out in the community on message boards. The ‘Vote Yes for the Kids’ had a Facebook page that was updated at least weekly. Local radio and the Republican also had features on it. Another was two informational meetings that were held by the steering committee to answer any questions that people could come to or watch on Facebook. Olson noted that there was a poor turnout at the public informational meetings and tours that were held for the public which provided voters the opportunity to see what is happening ‘behind the walls’ at the elementary.

“I think the steering committee and school board put out the information. It was in the newspaper; it was on social media. I think people just failed to look into this before they voted,” steering committee member Nick Moser commented.

The votes failure to pass is a major setback for the schools, especially in the elementary school which was in most need of updating. Olson and fellow school board member, Dawn Kruk, explained that as a result of the vote, the district will now have to find ways to make large scale projects occur with only 3 mills. The majority of the proposed $5 million project was to address the heating system issues within the elementary school. Those issues will still need to be addressed within a few years or there may not be a heating system to keep the elementary school warm.

“I don’t think many people in our school district understand the need right now. The heating system needs have been patched and pushed off for many years knowing it’s going to cost a lot to fix. Well, now it’s at the end of the road and we’re trying not to push it off any longer,” Olson said.

With the current buildings being over 50 years old and 70 percent of respondents to a previous survey directing the board to improve the current buildings rather than build new, the need to make those improvements and replacements of different systems within them is inevitable. With the help of CTS Group over the past year, the school board and building committee attempted to package the projects in a way that would ultimately save taxpayers money. The steering committee was tasked with explaining the reasoning for having the projects all done at one time, which would have provided energy efficient solutions and, eventually, cost savings in the long-term. There was also a sunset clause for the mill increase that would have decreased the building levy from the 15 mills that was asked for to fund the major renovation to 5 mills for school building maintenance after 15 years.

“I think there is a misconception in the community on what these extra mills were going to be used for. What the building committee was proposing with this vote were basic things that need to be updated and replaced- the need for air handlers for cleaner air to breathe, boilers and rooftop units for heat, pipes, electrical systems that need updating to current standards, lighting in the buildings for cost efficiency and secure entryways to monitor people coming into the building for safety reasons. None of these things were extravagant or over the top, they were the basic, most cost-efficient options,” Olson stated.

“These projects will need to be done at some point and will cost taxpayers regardless,” Kruk said. “It is just a matter of when and how.”

The LASD board and building committee will now have to review the projects and prioritize them rather being able to make the necessary improvements happen in one summer. The major fear now is that some of the projects may never be considered, and the projects that must be done will have to wait years until the building levy can support the expenditure. This will be a major hurdle to overcome as the current mill levy only generates enough to cover the general maintenance and upkeep each year of the aging buildings.  Kruk explained that the school has not had to ask for a building mill levy increase for many years because they have been patching problems and trying to fix things little by little. If this vote had passed, the school buildings would have increased their longevity by decades as they are well past the point where “getting by” will no longer be possible.

“I think the realization that this is not just a ‘school’ issue but a community issue needs to be stressed. The projects were for the kids in our community,” Kruk said.

“Public schools are a necessity for our community, and the young people that are taught in the schools are the future of this great community. If we want to keep this community flourishing we have to invest in the infrastructure. That’s how we encourage the next generations to want to raise their families here. Public schools are totally reliant on the State and local taxpayers for revenue. When issues arise, it is up to our taxpayers to keep this community running,” Olson added.

Throndset echoed those sentiments sharing his belief that the support of a school and its expenditures depends on the total community, just like fire protection, law enforcement, senior citizen support, and library services.

“No one likes additional taxation, but there are necessities in a school community.  When a district-wide vote fails, without mention as to why forty-one percent of the voters were against the proposal, there is a need for the supporters and non-supporters to meet and iron out the differences,” Throndset said. “The proposal did not include any new buildings, so the request for additional tax income for a determined number of years was as basic as the school could make it.”

Christianson believes there were several reasons why the building fund vote failed. The main one being the current farm economy. As poor harvest conditions and unstable markets continue, it may have many concerned with adding more expense. For civic projects such as this, Christianson believes it is difficult for many to decide to vote for an increase in their taxes. Moser agreed with that assumption as the ag community, which is the backbone of the LASD economy and bulk of revenue that would have funded the project, is currently facing a downward spiral in profit and a surging expense report. For now, the school buildings will have to limp through until a new plan of action can be drafted.

“We will continue to maintain our current boiler systems as we develop plans for future building issues. I would like to thank those who assisted in putting out the information and the public for coming out to vote,” Christianson said.

CTS Group has stated that they are committed to working with the Langdon Area School District in moving forward and exploring what options they have. While the vote ultimately failed, CTS Groups Senior Account Manager Mark Bucholz believes there is good news to the future of the proposed project as 58.9 percent of voters supported the plan and that should be acknowledged. Where the District goes from here is still unclear, but what is clear is that the cost of delay may add 5 -7.5 percent over the next year with potential inflation on labor and material costs. That means $250,000 – $375,000 more per year based on historical construction data.

“There are some alternatives that may be explored by the District. The bottom line is that CTS is committed to working with the District on any/all options moving forward. Funding the deferred maintenance items such as the HVAC improvements will need public support. There were no luxury “wouldn’t it be nice” items included in this plan to reduce the price tag,” commented Bucholz.

To say that not enough effort to inform voters would be unfair and that there was not a plan for the monumental funding requested- untrue. With the perfect storm brewing in the ag world and public entities at every level wondering how they will pay for the necessities to run, it appears that those voting may not have fully understood how dire the school facility’s needs are. The failed vote means a failed attempt at providing the kids and staff of LASD with an efficient, safe, and healthy learning and teaching environment.

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