Herald JournalHerald Journal, Oct. 6, 2003

Group says school campus idea is too extravagant for taxpayers

By Lynda Jensen

About 50 residents attended a meeting at Middleville Township last Monday sponsored by the Citizens for Responsible Education (CRE), a group of local residents.

The turnout included five school board candidates, three current school board members, township residents from both Victor and Middleville, Waverly and Howard Lake residents and business owners.

During the meeting, a number of issues were discussed, including:

· it was felt that a new campus style complex for the Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted school district is too extravagant for local taxpayers.

A moderate and "fiscally responsible" choice for the school district is more desirable than the campus idea, which is too extreme, spokesman Bob Schermann said.

· existing buildings should be preserved.

"A moderate plan is the best course of action," Schermann said.

"We have in the past been told we are 'no' votes," Schermann said. "This is not true."

In fact, the CRE people do support the school, but do not feel the building bond would be the answer to the district's problems, many said.

The CRE group endorsed three school board candidates: Lori Custer of Howard Lake, Dan Schaible of Waverly, and incumbent Al Doering.

Notable members of the Citizens for Responsible Education include county commissioner Dick Mattson and Waverly Mayor Charlie Bush, Schermann said.

The total tax picture

Several people expressed strong misgivings about what the total impact of the bond and levy would be.

One resident noted that school figures are being given piecemeal to the public, but the final bill will likely end up being a nasty shock.

"We don't want people to sit back later and say 'We can't afford this," Schermann said.

Dale Engel, a Howard Lake resident who also works at the county assessor's office, released figures that were based on numbers the school distributed from Ehlers & Associates.

"The total tax picture is important," Engel said. "My main concern is that we as taxpayers know what we're looking at," he said.

For example, a residential homestead taxpayer in Victor Township with property valued at $100,000 would see an increase in taxes from $393 in 2003 to $1,101 in 2004; taxes for a $200,000 residential homestead property would change from $1,159 to $2,575; and a $300,000 residential homestead property would go from $1,924 to $4,049, he said.

These numbers, including the years that the taxes are to be collected, are based on what was issued by the district, Engel said.

The percent increase for commercial property would be somewhat less, he said. For example, property valued at $300,000 would go from $8,746 to $12,200, Engel said.

To come up with the numbers, Engel assumed county, city/township, and state tax rates (for commercial/industrial properties) would stay the same as last year, he said.

Large farms could expect their taxes to more than double from the building bond, Engel said.

He also noted that tax rates would go down if there is growth in the area.

It was noted that most area cities and Wright County have already proposed double digit increases, although these figures may go down before the numbers are officially adopted in December.

Engel was reluctant to get involved until he saw school district literature, which cited the Minnesota property tax refund, known as the "Circuit Breaker," which would refund up to 80 percent of the tax increase for some homeowners. This information was marked in bold on the district's flyer, Engel said.

However, in order for homeowners to get up to 80 percent back, they can only have an income of about $10,000 per year or less, Engel said.

These figures were compiled as a concerned taxpayer, and were not prepared by the assessor's office, Engel noted.

Doering said that property owners would be taxed only what money is used. He also noted that the learning levy has to pass for the building bond to pass.

Higher taxes would chase people away from the community, Schermann said. It would also present a hardship to seniors, who are on fixed incomes.

Doering noted that there will be public informational meetings in the future.

However, HLWW school board member Charlie Borrell told him that the school district does not answer questions in an open setting.

"It's divide-and-conquer," Borrell said.

"What good is the meeting?" Schermann asked. It only allows the district to distribute propaganda, he said. "You've got to be able to pin people down."

Many attendees appeared in favor of the operating levy passing, but against the campus building bond.

Doering urged attendees to pass the learning levy because the school would have to wait another year before it could ask again.

"We (the school board) do not use (the money) for frivolous things," Doering said.

Borrell disagreed, saying that Supt. George Ladd "will find ways to spend every bit of that (money)," Borrell said.

"The community will support something done in a responsible manner," Borrell said. "This is not reasonable."

"We are pushing the limits of if we can pay for it," Borrell said. Borrell questioned the wisdom of spending so much that might lead the district into operating debt in the event of an emergency. The would be a legitimate reason the state would step in, he said.

"There's only one choice," commented Howard Lake City Council Member Terry Ostgulen reflectively. "Forty seven million or nothing."

Other alternatives?

Some attendees seemed in favor of challenging the state. Schermann noted that Bob Buresh of the Department of Education was no longer there any more.

"The board can't be dictated to by administration. They need to challenge them," resident Al Moy said. "That's what they're there for."

Doering defended the board's actions, reminding those present that the state turned down the board's wishes to remodel, and there is a large contingent of people who attended more than one board meeting to press the idea of a campus. The board was rushed for time, he added.

Schermann reiterated earlier comments he made at previous school board meetings, saying he felt Ladd is trying to use scare tactics to get the operating levy and bond passed.

Ladd wanted to release a list of teachers and staff to be laid off in a past meeting, but the school board stood up to him, preventing this from happening, Schermann said.

Moy indicated that he felt the school should add onto existing buildings and buy more land, giving more time for orderly annexation.

Engel noted that there is an elementary in each community in both Buffalo and the Dassel-Cokato school district.

One resident noted an article in the Carver County News about the Watertown-Mayer School District closing its fifth grade to open enrollment. One third of fifth graders there are from the HLWW district.

She demanded to get an answer from the district about why this was the case regarding open enrollment.

Regardless of how people feel about the bond or levy, Schermann urged everyone to vote.

"Whatever that vote is ­ however you feel," Schermann said.

Deb Stenberg is offering rides to the polls for seniors, she said. Those interested may call her at (320) 543-2440 (evenings) or 800-487-5310 (day).

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