St. Louis Park School Board narrows down referendum options

As St. Louis Park School District Supt. Rob Metz looks on, Boardmember Joe Tatalovich, right, points to a board priority on a whiteboard at 10:15 p.m. April 4 in a St. Louis Park High School room. The figures on the left side of the white board show estimated tax impacts of a referendum on the owner of a $250,000 home in St. Louis Park. (Sun Sailor staff photo by Seth Rowe) St. Louis Park School District Supt. Rob Metz uses his hands to illustrate the range of deferred maintenance projects the district could fund through a referendum during an April 4 St. Louis Park School Board meeting at St. Louis Park High School. (Sun Sailor staff photo by Seth Rowe) St. Louis Park School Board members listed their initial thoughts for the size of a referendum on Post-it notes April 4 at St. Louis Park High School. (Sun Sailor staff photo by Seth Rowe)
As St. Louis Park School District Supt. Rob Metz looks on, Boardmember Joe Tatalovich, right, points to a board priority on a whiteboard at 10:15 p.m. April 4 in a St. Louis Park High School room. The figures on the left side of the white board show estimated tax impacts of a referendum on the owner of a $250,000 home in St. Louis Park. (Sun Sailor staff photo by Seth Rowe)

The St. Louis Park School Board debated a referendum for about eight hours in two meetings during the first full week of April but could not reach a consensus on a final package.

However, the board did hone in on their priorities. After a process in which board members used Post-it notes to rank their priorities for facilities upgrades during an April 4 meeting, Supt. Rob Metz provided the board with a revised proposal during an April 7 meeting.

The plan, with an estimated cost of $100.9 million, calls for Park Spanish Immersion School to move to Cedar Manor Community Center, which is currently home to tenants like The French American School of Minneapolis and the Transition Plus program for young adults with disabilities. The district would remodel the building currently used for PSI but would not demolish or replace it, under the latest proposal.

Early childhood programs that are currently in the east wing of the same building, called Central Community Center, would move, and the Central side of the building would be updated. The district office, Central Clinic and Transition Plus would move into the Central Community Center side of the building after it had been remodeled.

The district office would move from St. Louis Park High School to a leased space while the Central Community Center remodeling project took place. The current high school offices would move to the space currently occupied by the district office. The space currently used for the high school offices would be remodeled into classrooms.

A central kitchen that would allow food to be prepared for students at all district schools would be built at the high school, according to the proposal. The district would also update kitchens at other schools.

The option would create a high school commons area, including a new, two-level, glass main entrance to the high school.

“It’s going to be beautiful,” said Tom Bravo, facility manager for the district. “People are going to go, ‘Wow.’”

An addition would be added at St. Louis Park Middle School, under the proposal. The lunchroom at the middle school would also expand, as would the school office. An entrance designed to be more secure would be created. The option would improve “backbone technology” in the district, meaning the infrastructure used to connect computers and other technology in schools.

The proposal includes $20 million in “deferred maintenance,” although Director of Business Services Sandy Salin said they would classify the work as “deferred maintenance and building improvements” in a document for the Minnesota Department of Education to review.

The list of proposed projects under “deferred maintenance” includes 20 pilot classroom upgrades at the high and middle schools. Such classrooms can include multiple video screens and ergonomically designed furniture that can be easily moved.

Work on locker rooms, tennis courts, roofs, plumbing, electrical systems, classroom furniture and the addition of air conditioning at schools that do not already have it throughout their schools are also among items listed.

The deferred maintenance section includes $1.5 million for a secure entrance and upgrades of bathrooms and classrooms at Lenox Community Center.

After deferred maintenance, the proposal lists a variety of projects referred to as “enhancements.”

At the top of the list of enhancements is a $8.3 million “high school link and learning commons.” According to a district description, the item would lead to the remodeling of the high school media center and would create an open entryway into the media center from the new, enlarged commons at the school.

A performing arts space and orchestra room at the middle school would cost an estimated $9.2 million, according to the proposal.

A new high school weight and fitness room would cost an estimated $2.9 million.

Disagreement on final number

Despite coming to a general understanding on top priorities, board members could not agree on a final number for the referendum during the hours of debate, which became so detailed that the color of walls at elementary schools briefly arose as a topic of conversation.

Most board members said they supported a $100 million referendum, but Boardmember Bruce Richardson repeatedly pushed for a higher number while Boardmember Karen Waters insisted on a referendum of no more than $99 million. She said she preferred $91 million.

“I still want it all,” Richardson said at the April 4 meeting.

He added up all the potential projects the board considered to arrive at a total of about $141 million.

“I think this is the time to do it,” Richardson said. “Sell it. We’re good stewards of the money, and this is the best investment for the kids.”

He suggested that the district could structure the debt so that taxpayers would not see an increase in taxes until other, existing district debt had been paid off in 2022.

During the April 7 meeting, Richardson said he could live with leaving out some of the enhancements the board considered. However, he still suggested a proposal of $110 million or more.

“I don’t think we should be afraid of that,” Richardson said of a higher figure. “I think our voters would go with us. Don’t do anything out of fear. Our buildings are old and dilapidated. We ought to have a plan.”

However, Waters pointed out that the district referendums from 2004 onward have been for significantly lower figures. Voters approved referendums worth $17 million in 2004, $25 million in 2008 and $43.4 million in 2013.

“Now we’re looking at 2017 to say $100 (million) in one go?” Waters asked. “That is just such a hard swallow for most of our voters who are retired and on a fixed income.”

District figures indicate that a $75 million referendum would cost the owner of a $250,000 house $11 per month. A $102 million referendum could cost the same homeowner $15 per month while a $125 million referendum would cost the homeowner $18 per month.

In particular, Waters questioned the need for a performing arts center at the middle school.

“As much as I love everything related to the idea of a middle school auditorium, is it a need or a want?” Waters said. “I think it’s something that could wait to keep the number nicely under $100 million.”

Middle School Principal Les Bork made a case for the auditorium in the April 4 meeting. He said it would add a classroom for theater, art and International Baccalaureate classes and potentially speech and debate classes. Community education classes could also use it, he said.

Students from elementary schools could use a middle school auditorium, Bork continued. In many cases, the performing arts center would reach a different type of student than the school’s sports programs. It would enhance the quality of performances for constituents and would decrease the programming pressure at the high school auditorium, he added.

Richardson said of the auditorium at the April 7 meeting, “This space will be used, and it will be a fabulous addition to our district, and it will enhance the arts. You’re going to get a fight from me if you want to push it out.”

Richardson said he did not understand Waters’ insistence a referendum of less than $100 million, leading Waters to reply, “Well, you’re not running for reelection and have to justify it, for one thing. You’ve got the Bruce Richardson Auditorium going through your mind.”

The remark prompted several board members to laugh and Chair Jim Yarosh to issue a reminder that board members should maintain civility.

Yarosh also questioned the idea of a $99 million referendum, though.

“I’d feel like a used car salesman,” Yarosh said. “And I think it makes it look the wrong way. I’d rather have a flat $100 (million).”
Yarosh said he tended to agree with Richardson that the district could pass a higher referendum, though.

“We really have needs,” Yarosh said. “We have 50-some-year-old buildings.”

He suggested polling residents about a $105 million referendum, but Boardmember Jim Beneke responded, “I think surveys are useful for some things, but I doubt it’s going to tell us if we should go for $99 (million) or $105 million.”

Board members decided not to commission another poll, but they did not decide on a number, either, and did not take a vote. Bravo said district staff could potentially look at whittling the proposal from $100.9 million to $100 million, the figure several other board members said they supported.

Board members decided to discuss the matter further at a meeting Monday, April 17. If they reach a consensus, they could potentially vote at a meeting Monday, April 24.

Contact Seth Rowe at [email protected]