The Orono School District's $39.4 million bond referendum scheduled for Feb. 12 has sparked controversy among residents in recent weeks because of the timing and amount of the request.
Orono school board members authorized the referendum during their Nov. 8 board meeting, two days after Nov. 6 elections in which most area districts held their referendums.
The neighboring districts of Westonka and Delano had weighed in on levy and bond referendums during those elections, with Westonka voters approving an operating levy while Delano voters rejected two of three spending proposals.
"It just sounds very suspicious how they're doing this," said Medina resident Bill Velch, who's attended recent community meetings about city and school taxes. School officials said the timing of the request is not an attempt to sneak it by residents.
Orono Assistant Superintendent Neal Lawson said the district's independent facilities task force began meeting in July and finished its work in mid-October, and that ruled out putting the question on the November ballot.
"They weren't ready to present all of the information that we needed," he said.
Systems need to be updated
Orono officials said the additional money they are seeking would pay for interior and exterior improvements at Orono High, Schumann Elementary and Orono Intermediate schools.
"It's deferred maintenance," Lawson said. "It isn't anything new."
The majority of the request would be used to bring the buildings' heating, cooling and ventilation systems up to modern standards. Lawson said the three schools were all built in the 1950s and '60s.
According to the district's website, the upgrades could save $200,000 to $300,000 a year in energy costs.
If the referendums are approved, Lawson said the owner of a $300,000 home would pay $125 a year and the owner of a $500,000 home would pay $209 a year. The district plans to finance the project over 20 years.
Iowa consultant played role
In November 2005, Orono proposed $31 million in similar upgrades, but voters rejected the request after a group of residents mounted a campaign against the proposals. The following November, Orono district residents approved a $500,000-a-year operating levy that district officials said saved 11 teaching positions.
During the 2005 referendum, levy opponents hired Paul Dorr, an Iowa-based consultant who this fall helped a group of Robbinsdale district residents defeat a $13.1 million-a-year levy extension and a proposal to add $9.7 million a year in additional money for 10 years.
Remnants of Orono's battle with Dorr can be seen on the district's website. It contains a "Rumor? Reality!" section with information that disputes anticipated arguments against the bond.
Velch said he has attended community meetings about the school district bond proposal as well as the city of Medina's proposed tax increase in recent weeks.
"It's just people who are talking among themselves," Velch said about the gatherings. "It's not like there's some conspiracy out there" to defeat the proposals.
Velch said after word got out about Medina's proposed 34.8 percent tax levy increase earlier this fall, dozens of residents packed a city meeting to protest, and city officials have since reduced the increase. Chad Adams, Medina's city administrator, said that it has been lowered to a 12.73 percent increase.
Velch said some residents are worried about the timing of the school bond levy vote. They are concerned that many of their neighbors will be out of town in early February or could forget to request absentee ballots.
"With the economy the way it is and home values going down, it's the wrong time to ask for $40 million," Velch said.
Orono's facilities committee, which recommended the improvements being sought in the referendum, was made up of six district residents with ties to the construction industry. Lawson said all of the members volunteered their time.
Outdated lights, electrical units
He said the three buildings to be upgraded have many of their original fixtures and electrical components.
"It presents a lot of problems for those classrooms," Lawson said of the windows and light fixtures at the schools.
Orono School District spokesman Gary Kubat said residents can call the district to receive a copy of a video produced by Orono Kids Matter, an independent parents group, that introduces task force members and explains their recommendations.
Patrice Relerford • 612-673-4395