School board, city councils launch annual meetings; bond first topic

Members of district cities met with school board members and staff at the Vadnais Heights Commons July 31.

Area city councils have begun annual meetings with the school board again after a 30-year hiatus.

The first meeting on July 31 was organized by White Bear Lake City Administrator Ellen Hiniker and Vadnais Heights City Administrator Kevin Watson. Staff and local politicians from both cities, as well as Hugo and North Oaks, attended. School board members and staff were also present.

The first topic discussed was the school's $326 million bond referendum, which will be on the fall ballot. Superintendent Wayne Kazmierczak presented on what the bond would be used for — safety and security improvements, flexible learning spaces and building updates, including a new elementary school in Hugo and expansion of the high school at North Campus to create a one-campus high school.

The average building in the district is 50 years old. The newest — Oneka Elementary — is 15 years old and the oldest — the District Center — is 101 years old, Kazmierczak said.

The bond plans include reshaping the District Center into an expansion for Central Middle School. District Center would be relocated to Sunrise Park Middle School; the senior center and early childhood center would also be located at Sunrise. Normandy Park would be vacated. South Campus would become a middle school.

Oneka Elementary in Hugo would become a K-5 school and Hugo Elementary would become an early childhood center. The district has a growing preschool population and a waiting list, Kazmierczak said. Although free preschool was part of the district's recent strategic planning, the early childhood expansions are needed just for the current fee-based program. Additional funding would be needed for a free preschool program; the district is not currently pursuing funding for that. It would be easier to implement such a program in the future with two early childhood sites, he noted.

The biggest line item on the bond is the expansion of North Campus at about $179 million. Kazmierczak said the 90-member committee that came up with the plan looked at six different options before deciding that expanding North Campus to make one high school was the best option. The committee discussed a new high school in Hugo as well but wanted to put the high school together.

“We are all Bears,” Kazmierczak noted. There are only four or five schools in the United States that have a split-campus high school configuration like White Bear Lake, where freshman and sophomores attend school miles away from juniors and seniors.

The combined high school would be in the top 10 largest in the state, Kazmierczak said. The district is within the top 25 in the state; the population of the district is 60,000 to 70,000. The bond would be the biggest to pass in state history. “This is also the first time any district has tried to tackle the issues we are trying to tackle.”

 

Local politicians voice support for bond

City council members asked questions and discussed the bond.

“Will it take care of the district's needs for the length of the bond?” asked Hugo City Councilwoman  Becky Petryk.

“I think so,” said Kazmierczak, noting he wouldn't see why there would be another bond during that time. “It sets us up well for the next 10 years.”

“How does the levy factor into overall tax impact?” asked White Bear City Councilman Kevin Edberg.

“We don't anticipate going to voters to increase that,” Kazmierczak said. The levy was renewed in 2017 for 10 years. It would likely go for renewal in eight years. There is a technology levy that would be up for renewal in 2022.

White Bear City Councilman Dan Jones thought a new high school should have been built a long time ago. “It's time,” he said.

“Those of us that don't have children in school anymore have an obligation to pay it forward,” added Mayor Jo Emerson.

“We want to pay it forward to the next generation,” noted school board member Marge Newmaster. “This is a good time right now to do this; interest rates are good.”

Kazmierczak said construction costs continue to rise. The new elementary school in Hugo is projected to cost $43 million. The same size and quality of school in Hugo 15 years ago costs $25 million. “It will never cost less than what it will cost right now,” he noted.

Vadnais Heights City Councilman Bob Morse expressed concerns about the tax impact on seniors on fixed incomes. The impact is expected to be $23/month for a median-valued, $275,000 home. “I'm afraid it will impact seniors negatively,” he said. “Median home values are increasing, I want to have a balance.” 

“We haven't paid it in 30 years,” Jones said.

Kazmierczak said that the district's “mortgage” would be spread out over a larger tax base as growth occurs. About 1,500 new homes are expected in the district. “Our mortgage payment, so to speak, is going to be spread over a larger tax base,” he said. The tax impact of the bond is expected to stay consistent until 2044, not rise or fall, according to district documents.

Hugo Mayor Tom Weidt said he would like to see the new schools to attract more growth and value in the city. “The community revolves around schools,” he said. “Everything's value goes up.”

If the bond doesn't pass this fall, the district will likely have overcrowded schools and larger class sizes, Kazmierczak said. According to a district study, enrollment could hit almost 11,000 students in 10 years if 75 percent of the agricultural land available in the district is developed. Current enrollment capacity is 8,700. “It takes five years to put in place (the updated, larger schools),” Kazmierczak said. “We need to be ahead of the curve.”

Attendees discussed having annual or biannual meetings to discuss topics in common in the district or region. Mayor Emerson suggested talking about the Rush Line at a future meeting.

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