by Dennis Dalman
How much money will the Sartell-St. Stephen School District need for an operating levy if a new high school is built?
If voters approve the $105.8 million school-bond issue, does that mean more students will come to the district under open enrollment?
Wouldn’t the school bond be less expensive without athletic amenities?
Those were just some of the questions asked of School District Superintendent Jeff Schwiebert during his presentation and question-and-answer session May 4 at Oak Ridge Elementary School. (See related story about precincts, polling places.) It was the fifth open forum meeting concerning the school bond, which will be on the ballot at polls on May 24.
About two dozen people attended the May 24 forum, in addition to several administrators, teachers and staff members.
The following are topics raised at the forum and in other public meetings:
Yes, the school bond would be less expensive without athletic amenities or other extracurricular space needs, but Schwiebert said schools without athletics or extracurricular options are of the “European style” where schools provide academic education only. Americans expect education to be more well-rounded, to include athletics, art, music, theater and other forms of cultural enrichment.
On the school district’s website is a breakdown of estimated square footage of space needs that would be possible with passage of the school bond. An 800-seat performing arts center will require 8,000 square feet, plus a music suite that would include three large music spaces, for a total of 26,800 square feet. Athletic spaces would include an auxiliary gym, a three-station gym, concessions and school store, fitness and strength rooms, an eight-lane competitive pool, locker rooms and storage areas, for a total of 69,800 square feet. Space for arts and media-related activities would total 19,200 square feet.
Teaching and learning spaces of all kinds would total about 65,750 square feet.
Administration and support staff spaces are estimated to be about 27,700 square feet.
The total square footage of all spaces covered by the bond money is about 289,000 square feet.
Why a bond?
A Schools Facilities Task Force spent many months studying the needs of the schools in Sartell. They discovered quickly there is an acute need for more space, mainly because of ever-increasing numbers of students. Those enrollment numbers are expected to increase dramatically in the next 10 years, according to a demographer hired by the district.
In addition, there are numerous safety and security concerns because the schools were built long before the shocking, tragic incidents of school shootings and other mayhem that can happen in school settings.
Another need for the bond is learning methods have changed appreciably in the past couple of decades, with more computer applications, small-group projects and other forms of hands-on learning not necessarily related to books and texts.
Yet another reason is the high volume of traffic at the current high school, along with concerns from parents and nearby residents about safety related to the massive amounts of vehicles coming and going.
New school safety
Many have asked about Pinecone Road, which leads to the proposed new high school. The northern portion of Pinecone is a narrow two-lane road with no bicycle-walking paths.
The city and the school district have been working on a plan to upgrade Pinecone, including bicycle paths. That upgrading of Pinecone has actually been a project long envisioned by the city council, even before talk of a school bond began.
A roundabout is expected to be built at Pinecone where it connects to the school property, and there would be another access road to the new high school, in addition to the one leading to Oak Ridge Elementary School.
Currently, the Sartell-St. Stephen School District follows the state law regarding open enrollment, which states a school district must have one percent of its student population with open-enrollment options.
The school district has about 3.5 percent of its students in the open-enrollment category, Schwiebert said in a May 5 interview with the Sartell Newsleader. The district has a policy of allowing any children of district employees to attend Sartell schools, even if those employees do not live within the city. In addition, students who were students in Sartell but who moved are welcome to keep attending Sartell schools if they or their parents so choose.
There is no plan to change the current open-enrollment policy or to increase it if the school bond is approved, Schwiebert said.
If the school bond is approved in the May 24 referendum election, voters should know if it passes there will also have to be an operating levy approved down the road when the new high school would open in 2019 and when improvements have been made at the existing schools.
Although the amount is not known yet, Schwiebert estimated it would be probably in the neighborhood of $900,000 per year but that it could well be less. That money would cover the operating costs in the schools – such things as cooling, heating, ongoing maintenance and upgrades.
If education funding stays the same, the district now estimates an operating levy would probably add from $5 to $7 per month to the tax bill of a homeowner with a home valued at $180,000. That would be in addition to the $22.30 estimated monthly tax increase for the bond itself for someone who owns a home valued at $180,000, the average value for a Sartell home. Thus, that homeowner would see an increase of up to about $350 per year in more taxes, counting the cost of the bond and the operating levy.
For a breakdown of estimated tax increases that will occur if the bond is passed, go the Sartell-St. Stephen School District’s website. The site also includes a wealth of detailed information about school needs and the bond issue.
Design of school
Some have asked why there is no artist’s conception or blueprints of the proposed new high school available.
The reason, Schwiebert said, is it would cost up to $800,000 to have engineers and designers draw up blueprints and designs. The district, he noted, is unwilling to spend all that money just in case the bond does not pass.
The $105.8-million bond, if approved, would be paid back during a 25-year period.
The following is an approximate breakdown of how it will be spent:
• New high school, grades 9-12: $89.5 million.
• Changes to existing high school to make it a middle school, grades 6-8: $10.55 million.
• Changes to existing middle school for grades 3-5: $2.55 million.
• Changes to Pine Meadow Elementary, pre-K through grade 2: $1.7 million.
• Changes to Oak Ridge Elementary, pre-K through grade 2.: $650,000.
• Borrowing costs of the bond: $850,000.
Author: Dennis Dalman
Dalman was born and raised in South St. Cloud, graduated from St. Cloud Tech High School, then graduated from St. Cloud State University with a degree in English (emphasis on American and British literature) and mass communications (emphasis on print journalism). He studied in London, England for a year (1980-81) where he concentrated on British literature, political science, the history of Great Britain and wrote a book-length study of the British writer V.S. Naipaul. Dalman has been a reporter and weekly columnist for more than 30 years and worked for 16 of those years for the Alexandria Echo Press.