Winsted-Lester Prairie Journal, May 28, 2001

Questions abound about LP school future at joint meeting

By Patrice Waldron

In a joint meeting between the Lester Prairie School Board and the Lester Prairie City Council Wednesday, information was shared and some tough questions were asked.

On the forefront of the discussion is the question of consolidation of the Lester Prairie School District with with Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted (HLWW) School District.

HLWW has been battling, for the past few years, to decide on a site, should a new school be built.

Within the past six weeks, a site just north of Winsted was chosen for a new building.

With Lester Prairie only a few miles south of Winsted, talks are again underway to determine if the Lester Prairie school sistrict would consider merging with the HLWW school district.

Supt. James Redfield opened the meeting with an overview of the Lester Prairie school district. The budget is on track, and the district has made its necessary reductions, he said.

Some new coursework was added, aided by the use of the Internet, explained Redfield.

"Our goal is to try to keep the interest of the kids, work with the city and the community to keep things going," said Redfield.

"The rumor of our demise is greatly exaggerated," Redfield said, paraphrasing Mark Twain.

Lester Prairie Mayor Eric Angvall, inquired about the excess levy referendum passed in 1999.

Redfield said the school only held the referendum for the amount of money that also brought additional state funding with it, through the equalization process. The amount could have been higher, but would have been paid totally by local taxpayers.

Gene Starke, Lester Prairie School Board Chairman, explained a meeting he had with citizens from Winsted, and his being asked by the HLWW school board to find out how the Lester Prairie School Board members felt about the consolidation issue.

"How long (financially) can you afford to stand alone?" asked City Clerk Marilyn Pawelk.

"Do we build a fieldhouse, community center, whatever, get into debt, get it done, and all of the sudden it's 'We can't do this any more?'" Pawelk asked.

"Are we in good enough shape to continue to stand alone? Or could it be that in three to five years, you don't have a choice anymore?" asked Pawelk.

"That's a good question," said Starke.

"If you go into consolidation, you'd have the same issues. You'd have the pool, you'd have the building, you'd have more costs - what costs, we don't know," said Starke.

"There's a potential of $6 million (grant from the state, for consolidation). It's a potential," said Starke.

"They've already done their planning, and I think it would be great if we could keep our school, if we'd increase our housing, but can we do it?" asked Pawelk.

"Last time we discussed this issue in detail, we tried to get a piece of legislation through with area schools. We had a committee formed, which could be expanded, but that piece of legislature didn't go through," said Redfield.

"There was interest of other schools that talked about cooperative efforts," said Redfield.

"I guess the point we have to think about is 'Did we talk to all of the schools?'" Redfield said.

"Is it a positive to have a potential development going in?" Angvall asked.

"Are we going to be able to stand on our own until then?" said Starke.

"We have kind of a narrow operating band," board member Barry Kyllo said. "Since I've been on the board, we've been at a little under 600 (enrollment), then down to 530 kids in about six years. When you're at 550, you're great. When you're at 600, you need a new school."

From the audience, Leah Spring said: "All four of my older kids are open enrolled to Watertown. Superintendent (Harvey) Kraabel said that they would not go into the city limits of Lester Prairie, but they would go to ShadowBrooke golf course or Treasure Hunt."

"The last meeting I came to, you were talking about different consolidations. I want to know which is better than Howard Lake. Have you found anything better?" asked audience member Ken Bebo.

"Do you think that if they build that school by Winsted without us, with open enrollment that they'll let us bail out?" asked Bebo.

"I don't think that without Lester Prairie, there's a fat chance in hell that it will be built," said Starke.

Howard Lake and Waverly are so against that site that it won't work, he said.

"So you don't think it's to our advantage to join them?" Bebo continued.

"I didn't say that it was to our advantage or disadvantage to join them," said Starke.

"I'm just putting out to everyone that I'll look at anything," said Starke.

"The worst thing you can think is that consolidation will save money," said Redfield.

"We need to do a study of programs and curriculum. We're not doing a very good job of telling people of the good things we're doing. We're not making a very good promotion in the community," said Redfield.

"On the bonding issue, you're going to pay no matter where the building is, but it comes to operating what you can provide in that facility - that's really the question," said audience member Chris Schultz.

"In my opinion, Lester Prairie has the ultimate bargaining power, that they will probably never have again," said Schultz. "The key is to take that bargaining power to the table, whether anything happens or not."

Schultz asked what the Lester Prairie district's existing debt amount is, the time frame for paying it back, and the possibility of HLWW taking over part of that debt.

"What is the total debt amount?" repeated Schultz.

"I don't have the figures in front of me. I'll have to get back to you," said Redfield.

"I believe it's a 20-year refinance," said Kyllo.

"Our bonded indebtedness is not unmanageable," Redfield said.

It was decided that a joint meeting between all the groups involved, the Lester Prairie City Council, the Lester Prairie School Board, the Winsted City Council, and the HLWW school board, is very important.

Starke said he would try to set up the meeting.

"We are open to discussion with other schools," said Redfield to sum up the meeting.


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