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833 task force to decide fate of $5 million in excess construction money

Sixty-seven percent of those who responded to a School District 833 survey on how to spend $5 million in excess construction money say new projects should be funded.

That's one of the choices being discussed by a board-appointed task force that is also considering spending the money to reduce property taxes or saving it for future projects.

It could also choose to divide the money among the choices. Recommendations are expected to go before the board Jan. 7.

The task force will also hear comments from the public at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 8, at the District Service Center in Cottage Grove.

The task force met for the first time on Dec. 2 and heard overviews from Aaron Bushberger, district finance director, and Mike Vogel, assistant to the superintendent for operations.

After the 2000 construction referendum, there was approximately $8 million left after three elementary schools were built. More than $4 million was spent on additional projects and $4 million was set aside that eventually went to help pay for land for East Ridge High School.

If the school board chooses to reduce the impact of future spending to replace heating systems in five elementary schools, the savings would be about $6 a year on a $250,000 home. In years 2023 to 2026, the savings would go up to $36 a year, according to Bushberger.

The difference is caused by the way interest and principal payments are scheduled.

If the district used the money to prepay existing bonds, residents would get a $16 break from 2012-2022 or a one-time $110 reduction in 2012.

If money is set aside for the future, it would likely go to build another middle school between 2013 and 2015, Vogel said.

The school would be one for 400 to 600 students that could be a "choice" school focusing on the arts or engineering, for example.

The list of requests for the extra $5 million is at $30 million and climbing, Vogel said, giving a copy of suggestions to task force members.

Requests range from $60,000 for East Ridge band uniforms to $2.4 million for a new Early Childhood and Family Education facility.

Vogel suggested, and task force members agreed, to have district assistant superintendents go through the list and rate the merits of suggestions.

The law allows the district to spend construction money on "acquisition or betterment of school sites or facilities."

It does not allow the district to pay general fund expenses such as teachers or staff salaries, Vogel said.

He said he's gotten calls from Woodbury High School advocates asking that the $800,000 difference between the estimated and actual costs of remodeling there be directed back to that school specifically.

"From their perspective, it's their money," he said.

Park High School's field and track at Wolfpack Stadium cost $1.9 million. A year later, with a more favorable bidding climate, building the same facilities at Woodbury High School was $1.4 million.

Vogel said typically excess money doesn't go back to an individual school, it goes back to the district.

They argue there should be equity among all district schools, but that's not possible, Vogel said.

To make Park identical to East Ridge, everything inside of Park would have to be replaced.

Woodbury High School has a pool and Park and East Ridge do not, he said.

"We'll never achieve sameness in all our buildings," Vogel said.

There's been heavy lobbying for projects, he said, but "orchestrated campaigns" and those that are single submissions are weighted the same on the project list.

"When would the district be coming back for more money?" said Teresa Veldof, task force member.

A new middle school is a ways off, Vogel said.

The future of state funding for education is uncertain, Bushberger said, of the need to ask voters for more money.

The district will use money it has set aside to pay expected deficits through 2010-2011, but it's hard to predict what will happen after that, Bushberger said.

Judy Spooner
Judy Spooner is the longest-serving staff writer at the South Washington County Bulletin. Spooner, who covers education and features in addition to writing a weekly column, has been with the newspaper for over 30 years.
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