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Readers’ Views

We can’t afford to wait

To the Editor:

Last November, Martin County West School District voters went to the polls regarding a referendum with two questions: the first to approve $63 million for a new pre-K through 12 facility in Sherburn, and the second, contingent on the first passing, to approve a $9 million gym space (to replace what was lost with the closure of the Welcome building) and an auditorium. The proposed plan was developed after significant research, facilities assessments, and financial analysis regarding the future of the district. It was the right plan for the future of Martin County West. Question 1 failed by 50 votes, with many indications that there was a segment of the voters that needed additional information and reassurances.

The school board, along with a team of experts, spent December and January reevaluating the options, discussing new possibilities, and determining the educational and financial impact of those options. They have determined that their original plan (with slight modifications) is still the right plan for the future of the district.

The school board had a successful work session on February 13. The discussion centered around fiscal responsibility and ensuring the district is financially stable. Based on this priority, the board worked through their thoughts and concerns with the referendum plan that was sent to review and comment at the Minnesota Department of Education in January, and made a few changes to better align with their vision. Their discussion was genuine, open and honest and focused on what is best for the long-term sustainability and educational experience at Martin County West. They discussed trimming the first question by approximately $5 million, with options that would have a significant negative impact on the education of our kids. Those potentially detrimental cost-savings, would have had very little impact on the tax burden. As an example, reducing question 1 by $5 million dollars only reduced the yearly tax burden by $28 for a $150,000 residential property. They also discussed modifying the plan from building for a 2 1/2 section school to a 2 section school. Essentially, this would have removed three classrooms (2,700 square feet out of 145,000 square feet) and this would create significant challenges with class sizes/sections in the years ahead.

After lengthy discussion, the board decided to remove the auditorium from the second question on the ballot and kept only the auxiliary gym. They are saying “not yet” regarding the auditorium as it is in addition to the current space we have. They discussed that the gym is truly needed to provide adequate space for both the school and community because it replaces the gym space lost when the Welcome building closed, but they wanted to keep it in the second question due to the total cost of the project. They were mindful of bringing the total project cost down.

The board is committed to ensuring Martin County West remains a school district, to have a viable district for our children and their children. This means looking at the most cost effective ways to address the needs of our aging facilities and improve operating efficiencies. The proposed plan does this.

The District has looked carefully at the needs of the entire school district. This included an in depth facility assessment conducted by a team of facility experts and engineers. This data has been reported at several board meetings. Staff were also asked to provide input on the facilities, since they use them every day, through a survey.

The proposed plan is less square footage than the district is currently operating with due to a more efficient use of space, and includes NEW building systems and an energy efficient building envelope. MCW currently has 172,055 square feet in three buildings within the district. The size of the new Pre-k-12 building is a proposed 145,000 square feet. This is a total reduction of 27,055 square feet, all while expanding the gyms, Career & Technical Education areas, adding breakout areas, and addressing numerous undersized classrooms. This is efficiency.

It is easy to hear numbers tossed around and jump to a conclusion. I encourage you to attend meetings or watch the recordings. Have conversations with board members and administration. Gather information for yourself and evaluate all of the research that has been done. I am confident you will find that the board is right-sizing spaces as needed.

The school does not have a deficit in their fund balance. They have 25 percent in their fund balance. However, the projected deficit spending for the next three years (without major and deep budget cuts) will obliterate that fund balance. The time to act is now – we cannot afford to wait!

Concerns have been expressed about future enrollment. Current enrollment projections put the district at 561 total students in 2030, not in the 400s like claimed. The new facility is right-sized for that projection.

As a result of new property valuations, the new referendum at a higher amount of $64.7 million (increased due to inflation and winter construction) will cost about $10 less a year than the previous referendum at the district average of a $150,000 house value.

There continues to be discussion about a two school option (building one new building and retaining a current building). This option WOULD require a future operating referendum, and will ultimately cost the taxpayer more than the proposed one building option. Building one new building for part of the district, and waiting to EVENTUALLY add space for the elementary in 10 years would cost double due to inflation. All of these options, while they seem logical, have been vetted by experts and all result in more cost to taxpayers than the proposed referendum.

I encourage you to attend meetings and listen to the information presented. Ask questions of those that are planning this project. Ultimately, the fate of our school district is in our hands. We have strong traditions, a history of educational excellence, and are planning for a sustainable future for over 560 students each year. This important decision deserves our attention, our thoughtfulness, and our support.

Stephanie Wohlhuter

MCW agricultural educator, parent and chair of the Vote Yes committee

Sherburn

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