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Brainerd School Board: Board debates facilities referendum date

Todd Rapp talks to the Brainerd School Board Wednesday on when the best time would be to have a referendum on the district's facilities plan. Jennifer Stockinger/Brainerd Dispatch

When should Brainerd Public Schools turn to its voters to seek referendum approval of its facilities plan geared to meet the district's future needs of its students, staff and community?

That is the question the Brainerd School Board faced Wednesday during a special all-day school board meeting at Washington Educational Services Building in Brainerd.

After spending a good portion of the meeting going over a proposed facilities plan still subject to change on all the school's buildings, the board discussed when it should have a referendum.

The school board and administrative staff have spent hours upon hours of discussion with themselves, with staff and the community and have hired consultants to help them with the comprehensive plan. On Feb. 13, the board approved a resolution to execute a contract with Foster, Jacobs & Johnson Inc., for facilities program management services to help the district implement its plan. The company's sub-consultants, Widseth Smith Nolting and Kraus-Anderson Construction, are assisting in the consulting process. All three companies have worked on numerous projects in school districts throughout Minnesota. WSN and Kraus-Anderson worked on the Forestview Middle School construction project.

The board only discussed the timeline of when the referendum would occur. It did not discuss how the referendum would be presented to voters—such as how to break up funding requests that could be as much as $228 million, if the highest estimates of all proposed projects went forward. The board could choose to ask voters for the entire amount with one ballot question or ask for a portion of the funding split up in different ballot questions.

All the buildings are part of the facilities plan and could be part of a referendum. Below are the estimated costs of each plan:

• Brainerd High School—South Campus: $10 million-$11 million.

• Brainerd High School—North Campus: $78 million-$83 million.

• Forestview Middle School: $1.5 million-$2 million.

• Baxter Elementary School: $24 million-$26 million for a new school.

• Baxter Early Childhood Hub: $9 million -$10 million to be built in existing school.

• Garfield Elementary School: $9 million -$9.5 million.

• Harrison Elementary School: $20 million-$21 million to update existing school or $25 million-$27 million to build new.

• Lowell Elementary School: $12 million-$13 million.

• Nisswa Elementary School: $12 million-$13 million.

• Riverside Elementary School: $10 million-$11 million.

• Brainerd Learning Center: $1.5 million-$2 million.

• Lincoln Education Center: $500,000 to demolish it.

• Washington Educational Services Building: $1.5 million-$20 million (Plan is based on a lot of factors at this time).

The board did not make a decision Wednesday on when to conduct the referendum, but will discuss which month at an upcoming October meeting.

Todd Rapp, one of the consultants involved in the referendum discussions, said there are five months, typically the second Tuesday of the month, when the school can have a referendum—February, April, May, August or November of 2018.

Rapp told board members they need to look at several things when determining which month they should have the referendum. One of them is the legalities of a referendum.

Schools must follow all the timelines set by state statutes of conducting referendums, such as adopting a resolution 74 days prior to calling for an election; notifying the county auditor 74 days before; and dealing with absentee ballots 46 days before the election.

Rapp recommended the board also have a consensus when they present the referendum plan to the public. He said board members do not want to have multiple opinions on the plan and have one of their opinions disputed in the community.

"If you're going to stick your neck out to the public and ask them for a tax increase what would you have to gain if you don't support it?" Rapp said. "If you put a plan forward, it will be much easier and better if it is unanimous."

The school board and administration have invested a lot of time into this facilities plan and Rapp said the board will come to a point when it has enough input to make a decision and schedule a referendum.

Rapp said budget and school calendars are things the board also must consider when looking at the timeline for the referendum. Construction costs will inflate when looking at a fall/winter versus a spring/summer referendum.

"You want to be careful when choosing the election date because you do not want to have it where there are lots of other activities going on," Rapp said. "We find in May there are people planning graduations and with sports, it is not the best time to have people vote on a referendum."

Rapp also advised board members to clear their calendar when they have the date chosen, so they won't become distracted. Rapp said board members and administrators will be communicating with voters prior to the election and they should be focused.

Board Chair Bob Nystrom said February would be too soon to have a referendum, but thought April would work. Nystrom was concerned about having enough polling places for the election, as he recalls how people in the past complained about long lines.

Board member Ruth Nelson was concerned about the "snowbirds," or seasonal residents, knowing about the referendum and if they would be around when the election occurred. Those residents can vote via absentee ballots, if needed. Rapp said the board has time to let the public know about their plans and can let the snowbirds know the details before they leave the area for the winter.

Board member Tom Haglin said he will be ready to go to voters with the referendum, when the board has a more concrete plan in place.

Nystrom said the district will have a better idea on what the voters think when they get the public survey results, which were not ready Wednesday.

Rapp said the district needs to come up with their plan and move forward to build momentum. He said if the board waits too long, the public will lose momentum.