Board learns about school referendum
During last week’s regular county board session, Steele County Commissioners heard from Superintendent Jeff Elstad about the upcoming referendum on Nov. 5.
This new vote comes after a special referendum last May failed to pass. That ballot included the option for a $116 million bond in order to build a new high school facility in Owatonna. The age and limitations of the current facility has seen the Owatonna School Board look to seek an alternative to the current facility.
“This process actually started back in the 2014-2015 school year and at that time a task force was pulled together to examine all of the facilities in the school district,” Elstad explained to the board. “In the fall of 2018, we reconvened the task force.”
The task force studied the facilities and some of the work that had been done in the elementary schools, as well the greatest needs within the high school. “The five things and themes that really came forward were: parts of the building are nearly 100 years old, we have ongoing maintenance needs that are unfunded, we have large-ticket items that we simply don’t have budgets to cover, safety and security concerns remain, and site size limitations.”
The election in May of 2019 was a narrow failure for the district with a 120-vote difference. After the results, the district went back to the public to get their opinions. “We held community listening sessions and in addition we also collected anecdotal evidence,” the superintendent said.
From that public input the district collected five key issues. “The first one was the cost of the last project proposal was too high, and within that then the tax impact was obviously a factor of the cost being too high,” Elstad said. “There was also a notion around the current campus that we have and the thought was that in the last election most of the campus, if not all of it, would have been demolished.”
Elstad explained that there was a strong sentiment, particularly in the neighboring households, of folks who wanted the district to look at a possible reutilization. The district was also asked by the public for a second opinion, which resulted in the suggestion of a similar solution.
Having heard from the public, the district will now seek to build a new school for a total cost of $104 million. If the measure should pass, the school will be located on an 88-acre parcel of land. Federated Insurance has signed a letter of intent with the landowner to purchase the land and donate it to the district.
The ballot in November will also include a second question that would provide $8 million to renovate and repurpose the existing high school for district and/or community use. This second question can only be approved if the first question passes.
In a statement released by the district, Troy Klecker, community development director for Owatonna said that, “this is a good site for a high school in terms of soil conditions, existing infrastructure, and the long-term development plan for the city.”
Klecker worked with school district staff, city engineers, county engineers, and an independent engineer to review and assess various properties before settling on this parcel as the recommended location. The land is located at 1945 SE 18th St., near the intersection of Highways 14 and 218 in the southern part of the community.
The parcel rose to the top of other options that were explored based on criteria that city, county and school district planners used to assess available land including traffic flow, proximity to utilities, and soil conditions.
If voters approve the referendum request for a new high school, Federated Insurance will finalize negotiations with the landowner and then gift the land to the school district. There will be no land deal if the referendum is not approved by voters.
Last May’s referendum carried a tax rate of $23 per month based on a $175,000 medium home, while this new measure carries a cost of $16.17 a month for the new building, and an additional $1.42 a month should the community opt to repurpose the current facility. Added together these total $17.59 a month for a medium household.
The district also developed a conceptual site plan as well as examples of what learning spaces could look like with the caveat that final designs would be developed with community input if the referendum passes.
“We worked hard to listen to our community, and identifying this land is one of our many responses,” said Elstad. “We are incredibly grateful to Federated for offering to donate the land to us, if the November vote is successful. Their gift reduces the tax impact for our residents, which was another concern we heard.”