Herald and Journal, June 25, 2001

No promises, but Lester Prairie leaves door open for consolidation

By Lynda Jensen

Attendees of a joint school board meeting Thursday left the discussion with few promises, as Lester Prairie school board members asked for more time to consider a possible consolidation effort with the Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted school district.

The Lester Prairie school district will have its regular meeting July 9, followed by a meeting with the Glencoe-Silver Lake school board July 24 to discuss a possible consolidation effort with that district.

After this, the Lester Prairie district will have a special meeting the last week of July to address the subject, said Lester Prairie Board Chairman Gene Starke.

"We will give you an answer one way or the other," Starke said.

LP is more open to consolidate this time

The meeting was similar to one two years earlier with HLWW, in which the two districts entertained the same idea.

This time around, Lester Prairie school board members appeared to be more open to the idea of consolidation.

Howard Lake resident Pat Van Oss asked Lester Prairie board members if they had a change of heart since the last time this subject was discussed.

Starke answered that, yes, Lester Prairie district was coming to a point where it realized that it may need to consolidate with another district, whichever one it may be.

Lester Prairie has always wanted to remain independent, Starke said, but now about half of people who come to him personally, are asking that the district consider other options, he said.

"We have a new housing development," Starke said. "Will it be full? Will that be another 100 kids?" he asked. Even if it did, Lester Prairie would be looking for another building, he said.

The best the Lester Prairie board can do is to be diligent, and present the possibilities to the public.

"Consolidation is on one end," Kyllo said. "Cooperation is somewhere in the middle," he said.

Sharing goals

Board members on both sides shared common desires to serve students in their respective districts in the best way possible, as well as provide quality education at a reasonable cost.

The meeting started with acting HLWW chairman Randy Heuer asking Lester Prairie members for a timeline and the formation of planning committees in a month's time.

"Our goal is simple. We are in the process of building and now is the time to do something," Heuer said.

A crowd of about 30 people were present, including the mayors of Winsted, Howard Lake, and Waverly, as well as several council members of those respective cities.

'50/50 effort' Hoheisel says

HLWW Superintendent Riley Hoheisel stressed the idea of making the consolidation effort a 50/50 effort regardless of district size, with Lester Prairie being an equal partner in the arrangement.

Hoheisel indicated that he contacted the Department of Children, Families and Learning and the state transportation department in an effort to come up with figures to consider in the pursuit of consolidation.

"The driving force is opportunities for kids," Hoheisel said. "We should throw (all the assets from both districts) into one big hat, to see what we have," Heuer said.

Major components of the discussion would be financial, facilities, staffing, and curriculum, he said.

Lester Prairie Dean of Students Joe Miller asked about curriculum, passing out a sheet highlighting the importance of post-secondary options, and an outline of some of the educational opportunities offered at Lester Prairie.

Hoheisel pointed out that the Wright County Technical Center is part of HLWW's plan, which would complement this. The overall numbers there have been growing, Hoheisel said, when pressed by Lester Prairie Superintendent Jim Redfield about numbers.

Hoheisel pointed out that HLWW could offer such benefits as the new regional agriculture science center, and things such as the opportunity room, which caters to "in between" elementary students who are not doing well in class otherwise.

Redfield pointed out that Lester Prairie is oriented near Hutchinson and uses vocational technical schools such as Ridgewater College.

Starke asked about transportation, which was discussed at length. Board members compared notes about the cost per student for transportation; noting the complex logistics of bussing students in areas of sparsity and density.

Each district had its own benefits to offer that would complement each other, Hoheisel said.

"I would like to see programs that neither of us have," commented Lester Prairie board member Barry Kyllo. Consolidating both schools should produce a better product with more synergy than just the two schools put together, Kyllo said.

Hoheisel suggested bringing in a neutral party to direct the consolidation.

Both superintendents compared class sizes. Both HLWW and Lester Prairie are losing students in the primary grades.

HLWW board member Leo Weber mentioned that the tax base is not equivalent.

At one point, HLWW board member Ken Zimmerman made an impassioned plea to remember the purpose, which is to serve the best interests of the children.

"You have a beautiful industrial program (at Lester Prairie)," Zimmerman said. "Wouldn't it be nice to have our children in a new school?" he asked.

"We can join forces," Zimmerman said. "You can do a lot more together," he said.

Lester Prairie board member Fred Blaser answered that the Lester Prairie district needs to do what is best for its tax dollars.

"We need more than pie in the sky," he said. "Why is it going to be better? Because we're bigger? That's what I'm hearing," he said.

Why consolidate?

Starke asked what the reasons were behind the consolidation effort.

"Why do you want Lester Prairie to consolidate?" he asked.

Heuer answered plainly that it made sense financially and that both districts would be looking at expanding eventually. Open enrollment was hurting both the districts and they could be more competitive if they consolidated, Heuer said.

"We're not hurting right now," Heuer said of HLWW.

Starke noted that Lester Prairie's budget has gotten worse in each year of the past five years.

Lester Prairie board members asked HLWW members why and how the consolidation went for adding Winsted to its district several years ago.

Weber answered, since he was on the board at the time this occurred. From a Winsted standpoint, the young people didn't have an identity, he said.

"A lot of times, it comes back to financial reasons," added HLWW board member Jim Raymond. The end result was offering more programs.

As a taxpayer and voting member, Kyllo said he'd like to see a vision of what it would be like after the consolidation. "We need to show the public how it will be better after," he said.

Tax impact information was presented by Carolyn Drude of Ehlers & Associates, who displayed detailed information about the impact on district taxpayers. This information is similar to information printed in the May 21 edition of the Herald and Journal.

The financial information showed the best scenario being with the two districts consolidating, combined with a state grant

Under current law, if the two districts were serious about consolidating, the state program in place would give them $6 million for a grant toward the construction of a new school, Drude said.

Technically, the state can turn down any grant request, she said, but it has never denied grants in the past to any school. There have been one or two schools that were approved state grant money and then ran into problems later with voters and other problems, she said.

Lester Prairie resident Doug Bebo questioned Drude about the tax burden for the Lester Prairie district.

"According to this information, the increase in taxes would be only $153?" Bebo asked. Drude confirmed that this was true (see boxed information).

If the two districts consolidated and HLWW agreed to absorb Lester Prairie's debt, the cost would be $33 for every taxpayer in the new district, she added.

Redfield suggested each board giving a timeline that it thought would work. He pointed out that the state will not give the grant unless they know whether the consolidation will take effect.

Heuer suggested setting a time limit of 30 days to start forming committees for the consolidation effort.

"We've got to be honest," Starke said. "We are meeting July 24 with the Glencoe Silver Lake district," he said. This would nullify the 30 day limit suggested by Heuer.

"We need to look at all the options and move forward," Blaser said.

"Schools are competitive," Leo Weber commented. "It's like a business."

"There are some tough decisions to make," Heuer said.

Blaser indicated that Lester Prairie should move forward. "We need to get a consensus of where we want to go and what we want to do," he said. "We need to look at all the options, make a decision, stay with it, and move forward."

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