WHITE BEAR LAKE — At its July 15 meeting, the school board unanimously approved a big ask — a $326 million bond referendum — to be on the ballot this fall.
If passed, it would be the largest in state history, confirmed Greg Abbott, Minnesota School Boards Association (MSBA) communications director. MSBA has a record of passed and failed school bonds dating back to 2000 on its website. The largest bond passed was by Anoka-Hennepin School District for $249 million in 2017, according to MSBA records. The district is using the money to renovate five high schools and build two new elementary schools.
White Bear Lake Area Schools plans to build one new elementary school in Hugo, expand North Campus to house all high school grades and construct upgrades at all other schools with the $326 million.
The plans include the relocation of Sunrise Park Middle School to South Campus. Sunrise would become an early childhood center, transition center and senior center, and would house district offices.
The vacated District Center, where the district offices are currently, would be an expansion for Central Middle School. Oneka Elementary in Hugo would become a K-5 school and Hugo Elementary would become an early childhood center. Districtwide safety and security improvements, as well as flexible learning spaces, are also part of the plans.
The plans were put forth by a 90-member committee that met this winter. The facility planning committee of staff, parents and community members came to a consensus on the plans this spring after discussing five options for high school and elementary configuration to meet growing enrollment needs. The facilities planning was prompted by the district's recent strategic planning. The district projects that more than 2,000 new students will enroll during the next 10 years due to housing growth. The growth will be 25% higher than current capacity.
The tax impact for the $326 million in voter-approved bonds on a $275,000 home would be an increase of $280 per year, according to board documents. For a $1 million commercial building, it would be about $1,300. The tax rate would increase from about 25 to 35 percent. The bond increase would begin in January 2020 and stay level to 2044.
The biggest line items are the expansion of North Campus at about $179 million and a new elementary school in Hugo, at $43 million. The district plans to spend about $17.1 million renovating Sunrise into a new District Center. New classroom and media center furniture for the whole district is expected to cost about $13.6 million. Renovations to South Campus to become a middle school would cost about $13.2 million.
Houses near North Campus still a line item
Included in the bond referendum is a $6 million line item to purchase about 21 homes near North Campus; the land isn't needed to expand the school but could be used for parking and playing fields. Homeowners that had requested their homes be removed from the plans were disappointed that the line item was included.
The district has said that it would only buy homes if homeowners are interested in selling them. The board has indicated it does not want to use eminent domain. However, homeowners that already told the district they don't want to sell their homes were concerned that the $6 million was still included in the plans to buy homes.
“How can they come in and say we want to buy your homes when we don't want to sell them?” questioned resident Kathy Greene.
Peg Vadnais noted that even though the current board doesn't want to use eminent domain, a future board could. The board won't be the same in 10 years when the plans are to be finished, she said. Vadnais also expressed concern about what the neighborhood would look like if some people sell and some don't; would there be vacant lots or rentals as individual homes are bought?
“Our land is part of our family legacy,” she added. Her father built her home with a team of horses in the 1940s.
Board Chair Don Mullin said the high school plans could proceed without buying the homes.
“I just feel like you say it isn't going to be the way it goes, but we got letters with our names on them,” said resident Mary Ryan. She said residents had a one-hour meeting with Superintendent Wayne Kazmierczak but he apparently “heard very little of what we said.”
Kazmierczak said as long as he is around, he will work to hold other boards to the standard of not using eminent domain. “We want to work with our neighbors if they want to sell their property and if they don't want to sell their property, we want to work with them to ensure a smooth transition into what the future will hold for the neighborhood,” he said. It could be decades before the district buys enough homes for parking and playing fields for the school, he noted.
Board member Deb Beloyed said the committee took into consideration what is best for the entire district when they decided North Campus could be the site for a new high school. Students from the north shouldn't have a 25-minute commute to high school in the winter, she said.
Board member Ellen Fahey said expanding North Campus is financially responsible because it reuses a building rather than constructing a new one. “We can do this without acquiring any houses,” she said. The district has been upfront about its interest in buying homes nearby before the bond passes, she added. She hopes the community supports the bond for the education of students.
“I do understand the anxiety,” she said to the homeowners.