Herald JournalHerald Journal, Aug. 25, 2003

Group presses proposal about new HLWW school campus

By Lynda Jensen

Chances are that some residents have seen or heard about the "Support Our School" non profit organization pertaining to the Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted school district.

But what is it all about?

The purpose of the group is to help spread the word about the critical position that it feels the school board is in ­ both facilities and budget wise, organizer Rob Merritt said.

The group wishes to help persuade people to vote in favor of a new school campus complex in a "neutral site with common sense about the central part of the district," Merritt said.

The choice is in the hands of the school board, which will decide by October, Supt. George Ladd said.

Elementary schools are planned for the communities that won't end up with the campus, Ladd said.

The group has been busy over the summer, manning a booth at the Wright County Fair, and encouraging people to wear buttons and spread the word about a new school.

"The community has to decide if education is important to them," Merritt said.

HLWW plans to ask voters to approve both a bond for building, and an operation levy for ongoing school expenses.

Breathing new life into an old issue

The group revived the facilities issue when it successfully persuaded the school board in the spring to attempt a building bond on the fall.

Before that time, the board went through a lengthy five-year process that ended up dividing the three communities over where to locate a new high school.

The group isn't so much concerned about where the school will be built, although it would prefer to remain near the central part of the district, spokesman Rob Merritt.

Genuine concern about the district's future is driving the group.

"We don't want our kids divided among 10 different districts," Merritt said, saying that it's possible that other districts will move in and take students, if HLWW loses its base or dissolves.

Even now, area schools have been closing their doors to open enrolled students, such as Buffalo, which closed certain grades from being too full.

It's entirely possible that students could be dispersed, he said.

In addition, the group is concerned about the financial well being of the district ­ not wanting a situation like 10 years ago when HLWW was in serious financial straits.

"I can guarantee people won't like what will happen in a few years," if the operating levy fails," Merritt said. "It'll kill them."

In fact, Ladd called the operating referendum the "most important thing of all."

"We need it, no matter which way we go," Ladd said. "Funding is flat for two years," he added.

For this reason, the group is urging others to vote in favor of the operating levy as well, Merritt said.

"We've gotten by cheaply," Merritt said, which is good.

"We've had the lowest taxes for years, but we're way behind the other districts and now we're paying the price," he said.

Merritt pointed to Humphrey Elementary, which was originally built as a Catholic school by St. Mary's, Ladd said.

Humphrey was designed for classrooms the size of 15 students or so, Ladd agreed. Now it houses about 22 to 25 students, he said.

"It wasn't meant to handle that many students," Ladd said.

Ladd noted that there is an increase of 20 students counted for enrollment this year.

In addition, the district has converted several rooms into classrooms in all three buildings, reflecting a crunch for space and buildings that weren't designed for modern standards in the day they were built.

There is an old locker room in Winsted that was converted into a classroom ­ which originally started out as a maintenance room, Ladd said.

Special education is using what formerly was a freezer in Winsted, Ladd said.

Merritt noted the lack of art rooms, among other things.

"Buildings make a difference," he said. "I don't care what people say."

Support Our School is a consortium of several residents, including a core group, Merritt said.

Core members include: Dean and Sheri Klinkner, Dawn Raymond, Tom and Vicki Hammer, Joni Decker, Tom and Kathy Peterson, John McIntosh, Rob and Denise Merritt, Harriet Confeld, Cecil and Laura Horstmann, Janet Perry, Cindy Heuer, Jodi Altringer, Jennifer Ahrens, and Joel and MaryLou Swedberg.

The president is Rob Merritt, secretary Sheri Klinkner, and treasurer is Raymond.

Those who are interested in joining may call Support Our School at (763) 658-4988.

Searching for land

Currently, the district is searching for a land parcel with 80 buildable acres within one-and-a-half miles of a utility hook up, said Supt. George Ladd.

This means all of the land must be usable, Ladd said. For example, if there is a creek or swamp, the land might be more acreage such as 100 or 120, he said.

An independent Realtor working on the district's behalf recently mailed a request to land owners with parcels that match what the district is looking for.

The district is looking south of Waverly, north and south of Howard Lake, and Winsted Township, Ladd said.

So far, after two batches of letters were sent out to property owners, the independent Realtor has received some responses, Ladd informed the board at Monday's meeting.

The first round of letters were to property owners with an average of 100 acres, Ladd said. The second set of letters were to owners with less acreage.

As far as he knows, he said, there were no responses from the Winsted area after the first set of letters were mailed.

"I don't know about responses from the second set that went out," he said.

A special meeting may be needed in September to decide a school site if the information isn't ready for the regular September meeting and if a township needs time to change its land use policy, Ladd said.

The land criteria includes the following:

· engineering criteria: zoning, availability to utilities, size and shape of land, site expandability, topography, soil conditions, wetlands, health and safety, and pedestrian access.

· community criteria: proximity to housing, proximity to community services, proximity to highways, visibility, central location to the district, and adjacent uses.

· cost criteria: site purchase, site development cost, utilities costs, street development, and assessments.

Ladd has been busy visiting townships and all three cities; visiting with the latter twice, he said.

Top questions include where the campus will be built, sewer and water, as well as cost questions, Ladd said.

Victor Township appears to be favorable this time, Merritt noted, saying that some responses in Victor have been received already.

However, Ladd indicated that fewer than what were hoped are being received.

In fact, the land search is going slower than expected and slowing the process up, Ladd said.

If a township is chosen, it would be necessary to look at the land use plan, Ladd said. It might be necessary to apply for zoning changes, he said.

HLWW will have the lowest taxes out of 14 area school districts this year, due to the fact that Glencoe-Silver Lake recently passed an operating referendum that will take effect this year. This will bump GSL higher than HLWW.

Conversely, Rockford school district, which has the second highest tax at $531, which plans to ask for an operating referendum in the fall, Ladd said.

In addition, HLWW taxpayers received a large decrease two years ago under the Ventura administration, when the state formula was changed.

Taking both the bond and levy into account, Board Member Charles Weber calculated his district taxes for his agricultural property in the past, saying they would be about $860.

Two years ago, the school tax dropped by $500, making the final increase for school district taxes about $360 for the Webers, he said.

The net increase would be only $360, he said.

"I think that's a bargain, (for a new school)," Weber said.

It was noted that interest rates related to bonds and financing are the best in several years.

The state kicks in a great deal more at the $25 million level, if a project of that amount is passed.

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