WELLS — After several defeats at the polls in the mid-2000s, United South Central School District took a few years off from trying to pass a bond referendum for a new school building.
But Supt. Jerry Jensen is more optimistic going into the district’s fourth attempt in about a decade on Aug. 14. This time, he said, the community has a better understanding of just how dire the circumstances have become at 126 South Broadway in Wells.
“Ninety-five percent of our facility is over 50 years old,” Jensen said. “Maintenance and upkeep gets more and more difficult. We have to do some massive upgrades if we’re going to look at staying at this site.”
In fact, portions of the building are 80 years old, he said. There are deficiencies with plumbing, handicap accessibility, air quality and classroom sizes. The structure and wiring also make it difficult to integrate technology into the classrooms.
“All of those things combined to get the board to say, ‘We really need to do something,’” Jensen said.
A remodel and upgrades of the school would cost about $19.6 million, Jensen said. The School Board decided a new 155,000-square-foot building at a cost of about $28.8 million made the most sense.
Jensen said the board wanted to get the bond question to the polls as soon as possible rather than waiting until the general election in November.
“The redistricting of the Legislature this year blocked out big chunks of time where you could not run a special election,” Jensen said. “The first date possible was Aug. 14.”
If the bond referendum passes, construction of the new pre-K through 12th-grade building (the only school in the district) would begin spring 2013 at an undecided location.
Jensen said the benefit to the slow economy will likely be competitive bids by contractors, as well as historically low interest rates.
“You can save the taxpayers a lot of money,” he said.
If the bond passes, estimated tax increases would be $184 per year on a $100,000 home. Under 2005’s $25 million bond referendum proposal, The Free Press reported tax increases on a $100,000 house would have been $307 a year.
The construction schedule is aggressive, Jensen said. If all goes according to plan, the new school would be open in the fall 2014.
Jensen said the cost estimate for the new building includes demolition of the old one. However, selling the building would be ideal.
Jensen said the need for a new school is not space related. Like many rural districts, enrollment has steadily decreased over the years, resulting in stagnant state funding. In 2012, USC had a student population of 632, according to the Minnesota Department of Education Data Center. That’s almost a 30 percent decrease from 2006, when the district had 898 students.
USC successfully passed an operating levy in 2010, increasing per-pupil funding from $1,000 to $1,200 for 10 years. Passing operating levies hasn’t been an issue, he said.
“The district has been supportive,” Jensen said. “In the recent operating referendums, the district has passed those questions fairly regularly. It’s been the building issue that’s been more of a problem.”
The first school bond referendum in April 2002 for $32 million was defeated with 80 percent voting no. In May 2005 the referendum for $24.7 million was defeated by 60 percent.
The third proposal in December 2005 was basically the same as the second, except for the elimination of a $400,000 bus garage and a 2 percent reduction in total square footage. It, too, was defeated at the polls.