Voters in the Forest Lake School District soon will decide whether to spend $176 million on a comprehensive overhaul of old buildings that have fallen into disrepair.
Approval of the May 20 ballot measure, which follows a smaller, failed one in 2010, depends on whether a broad community effort to reveal poor conditions in the schools has resonated with voters. In October 2012, the district assembled a task force, including parents and other residents, to review shortcomings in such areas as building security, antiquated fire alarms and potential energy savings.
"I never imagined the task force would come forward with something so visionary. It just made tremendous sense to me as a board member," said Kathy Bystrom, whose school board term expires in January. She was educated in Forest Lake schools and graduated in 1976. "I really trust our community and their desire to do right by our kids. I have every confidence our community will step up and approve that large price tag."
The ambitious plan would merge Century and Southwest junior high schools in a single school for seventh and eighth grades on the same campus as Forest Lake Area High School. The high school, now for 10th- to 12th-graders, would be remodeled to add ninth-graders.
Other key details:
• Safety and security upgrades, including a redesign of front entrances of each school building.
• Closing Central Learning Center and moving all programs to the Southwest building.
• Repairs and upgrades to roofs, heating and ventilation systems, and boilers in most buildings.
• Upgrades of arts, science and sports resources at the high school.
"I think we've done an outstanding job providing the community with the facts and the information they need," Bystrom said.
A promotional video on the district website devotes considerable attention to security concerns at Forest Lake schools and mentions the school shootings at Columbine, Red Lake and Newtown. Security consultant Michael Dorn of Safe Havens International said the "open air" type of construction common in the 1970s is now considered unsafe, and entrances to schools should be modified to make them secure.
"A great deal can happen with such proximity to the area where the kids are," he said in the video.
Concern also was expressed about student safety in tornadoes, fires and floods.
District buildings, 50 years old on average, lack modern energy efficiencies and therefore cost more to heat, the district said. The aquatic center doesn't meet state high school standards for competitive diving, while the high school has a varsity track that hasn't been usable for a decade.
The Forest Lake district includes elementary schools in Columbus, Lino Lakes, Linwood, Scandia and Wyoming — all of which would see improvements if the measure passes.
If voters approve the 30-year bond, a taxpayer who owns a home valued at $200,000 would see an initial increase in school taxes of about $200 per year or $17 a month, the district said. That amount would increase slightly in subsequent years.
Bystrom said the proposal makes sense because it closes a building "that's really become a money pit for us" and positions the district for anticipated growth despite a slight enrollment decline in recent years.
In 2011, voters renewed an operating levy that provides $6.2 million a year for nine years for classrooms, books and other operating expenses. Money for buildings is equally critical, she said, and she's confident voters will agree.
"This is an opportunity for us to really leave a legacy for our kids," she said.