Litchfield School District voters will be asked to fund facility upgrades during the Nov. 5 elections.
Three questions will appear on the district’s ballot, with the first being an excess levy to create additional funding for programming. Questions 2 and 3 deal with building improvements.
Approval of the proposed bonding in question 2, school officials say, will expand and upgrade classrooms, create safer school entrances and improve school infrastructure. Question 3 pertains to the construction of a new swimming pool, an expanded fitness facility and a soccer field.
District voters approved a bond in May 2014, for $3.2 million to upgrade technology and security of each building, which taxpayers will continue paying until February 1, 2023.
Although the Minnesota Legislature approved a Long-Term Facilities Maintenance Funding bill in 2016, it has not kept pace with expenses, according to Jesse Johnson, the school district’s business manager.
“That amount is currently $380 per pupil and is weighted by the average age of our buildings,” he said. “Even this amount is not enough to address the $18 million … in deferred maintenance the district is facing.”
As a result, the first bond — if approved — will allow the district enough funds for upgrading and remodeling school infrastructure. Question 2 asks for $33.785 million, which would increase property taxes for a home valued at $137,000 — the average-valued home in the district — by $114 a year. Question 3, asks for $11.43 million, which will increase property taxes for homes valued at $137,000, by $66 a year, and is contingent on the passage of questions 1 and 2.
Lake Ripley Elementary School, which celebrated its 50th anniversary last year, needs remodeling, including a new multi-purpose cafeteria that will turn the gymnasium back to its original use, and additional spaces for special education programs, according to the Dragon Proud website, which was established to provide referendum information. Restrooms and facilities also need to be created that meet the Americans with Disabilities requirements.
Use of the sensory room in Lake Ripley is intended for students with disabilities, but the current facility is inadequate, Lake Ripley Principal Chris Olson said.
“This … takes away a lot of humanity,” he said. “We have a student right now who has toileting needs. He has to come in here, this is the piece of privacy we have … a curtain. If a student needs to be transferred from one wheelchair to another, they have to go into there, and that’s the space that is used. … You have to come through all these doors … to come into here. So space for our students to have a little more convenience (and) for our staff.”
“It just takes away the dignity,” Superintendent Beckie Simenson added. “Now, this I will also tell you, this is the one handicap bathroom.”
The district plans to reconfigure classrooms such as the Family and Consumer Science, Art, Industrial Tech, woodshop and the STEM lab, at the middle school, Simenson said in an email.
Julie Rick, a FACS teacher, said there isn’t enough room for the number of students in her class.
“So I have eight kitchens,” Rick said. “So that puts four (students) in most kitchens. So that’s pretty tight, because in that one U-shape right there, that would be eight kids in that section. … Having six students is ideal.”
The district also plans to build additional breakout spaces and a new art room, remodel the industrial tech classroom and expand the cafeteria and kitchen at the high school.
The high school’s welding class uses equipment from the late 1960s to early 1970s, Assistant Principal Justin Brown said.
“These welders all need to be replaced,” he said. “To get all (new) welding equipment… it will cost probably about $300,000. The equipment that they’re using at Bobcat and Towmaster — places in town — are so much further along from what our kids (have). Our kids aren’t ready to go and weld for them because our machines aren’t up-to-date.”
The district would also like to build a bigger fitness space, a soccer field and a competitive eight-lane pool, which could be expanded for the wider community if additional funds are secured.
“The new high school pool will be designed so that it can be expanded into a larger community aquatic center when the necessary funding for the broader project is obtained by the city,” Simenson wrote in a column that appeared in the Independent Review.
To those residents who are concerned about their taxes increasing, Simenson responded that this is an important decision for the district and community to make.”Throughout the entire process it has been clear that the residents of Litchfield want to provide quality education for our children,” she said.