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Inver Grove Heights voters to decide on $31M in funding for school district

  • Article by: Erin Adler
  • Star Tribune
  • July 23, 2013 - 3:39 PM

From athletic fields to academic spaces, the facilities in District 199 are due for maintenance and improvements, the school board says, and the district is asking voters this fall to pay for it.

Inver Grove Heights voters will decide in November whether to approve a $31 million bond referendum to fund facilities updates across the district. If passed, the referendum would increase property taxes by about $91 per year for 20 years for owners of an average-priced home in the city.

“We have facilities that are aging, and we’re not able to keep them repaired,” said Superintendent Deirdre Wells. “So a good portion of this is deferred-maintenance types of things.”

The district began its facilities study almost a year ago, said board Chairwoman Cindy Nordstrom. As feedback was collected and projects prioritized, officials determined that security upgrades were necessary, along with improvements to performing arts, athletic and academic spaces. Basic maintenance, including reroofing and window replacement at every school, also is needed.

The largest project would create a 1,200-seat performing arts center at a cost of $7.5 million. Other big Simley High School upgrades include adding a “flexible learning space” and new band and choir rooms.

Also at the high school, a gymnasium addition and improvements to the track and football stadium are necessary, Wells said. Simley hasn’t been able to hold track meets for about three years, and the stadium’s grass isn’t durable enough to be used except by the varsity football team, Wells said. If upgraded to artificial turf, it could handle three times the wear and tear, allowing Parks and Recreation and other groups to use it.

“This is not just for the students in the district,” said Nordstrom. “These spaces can be used by the community.”

Nordstrom said that Inver Grove Heights doesn’t have a large performance space — auditoriums at Simley and Inver Grove Community College only hold about 300 people — so the new space could be used for community college and city-sponsored events.

Performing arts “are an area that we have really begun to see an increasing demand for,” Wells said.

The proposal also calls for security updates, including new secure entrances at the high school and Salem Hills Elementary. “Our No. 1 job is to make sure our kids are safe,” said Nordstrom.

Though the district tries to maintain facilities, doing so is often more challenging for a smaller district, said Wells. That’s because unlike roughly 25 of the state’s largest districts, Inver Grove Heights, with 3,800 students, doesn’t have access to the state’s alternative facilities program, which gives districts the power to access property tax funds without voter approval. The money is meant to help pay for maintenance expenses.

While its buildings are old enough to qualify, the district doesn’t have enough total square footage, Nordstrom said.

“[Bigger districts] are able to do things our district and districts just like us aren’t able to do,” Wells said.

The district hasn’t passed a bond referendum since 2005, and technology levies were defeated in both 2011 and 2012. But Nordstrom noted that since the technology levies failed, the economy has improved, with bond rates still “very reasonable” right now. She said she believes that asking for facilities updates is “a whole lot easier” than asking for money for technology.

“It’s things [voters] can feel, see and touch,” she said.

Currently, the board has limited information about what voters think of the referendum, Wells said. Soon, though, it will have survey results to help gauge the community’s views. The district also is planning between 12 and 15 referendum information sessions between now and November.

“Right now, we’re at the point where our facilities are holding us back,” said Wells. “With this bond, we could meet those challenges and really set the district up for 20 to 25 years of great programming moving forward.”

Though Wells estimates that less than 20 percent of the district’s households have school-aged children, she believes the referendum has a chance at passing.

“I’m the eternal optimist. I want to believe that we have a shot,” she said.

 

Erin Adler • 952-746-3283

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