With cozy sofas, hot coffee and warm apple cider, Cindy and Brad McDonnell's living room is a better meeting place than a school gym, said Orono School District residents and staff who gathered at the home on a recent afternoon.

Since Jan. 1, Cindy McDonnell, Jenni Brekken, Kate Bermann and other members of the Orono Vote Yes committee have hosted more than 20 informal neighborhood coffee sessions and meetings at private homes for district residents to discuss the district's $39.4 million bond referendum with school officials.

McDonnell and other members of the committee said their goal is to make sure their neighbors have accurate information about the district's maintenance needs.

"It's nice to sit down face to face and talk with people," Brekken said. "It doesn't just reach the people at the coffee. They're having conversations out there in the community."

Orono's bond referendum is scheduled for Feb. 12. If the request passes, it would finance repairs to the mechanical and electrical systems at Orono High, Schumann Elementary and Orono Intermediate schools. All three buildings were constructed in the 1950s and '60s.

If the referendum is approved, the owner of a $300,000 home would pay $125 more a year and the owner of a $500,000 home would pay $209 more a year. The district would finance the project over 20 years, Assistant Superintendent Neal Lawson said.

Bond supporters said such requests have not been easy to sell in their community and others around the metro area in recent years.

In November 2005, Orono proposed $31 million in upgrades to facilities, and a group of Orono residents hired Iowa-based consultant Paul Dorr to help defeat the proposals, which were rejected by 56 percent of those voting. More recently, Dorr helped a group of Robbinsdale district residents defeat a $22.8 million levy there in November.

Remnants of the Orono district's battle with Dorr are evident in information posted on the district's website, which contains a "Rumor? Reality!" section dealing with anticipated questions about the timing and purpose of the bond.

On the timing, school board chairman Jack Veach, "We're not trying to slip this through on anyone. We know the public gets tired of referendum after referendum, but we've been dealing with facilities issues throughout my time on the board."

At the McDonnells' coffee, Orono Superintendent Karen Orcutt introduced an eight-minute DVD that explains the work of the all-volunteer task force. The group scrutinized the district's 2004 facilities study and examined "every inch" of the three schools, she said. Orcutt spoke one-on-one with many of the more than 20 residents in attendance.

"It's grass roots," she said. "We can't get [enough] people at big formal meetings anymore, so we have to go where people are."

The DVD shows several task force members, including Maple Plain City Council Member Gene Couser, examining outdated light fixtures and heating systems, leaky roofs and a cracked chimney.

Many of the task force members work for or retired from local building, engineering and electrical companies. Orcutt said none of them would put their reputations at risk to advocate a tax increase if it weren't necessary. Couser agreed.

"There's short-term fixes you could do, but you'll be doing them again and again," Couser said.

He told residents the task force cut $3.5 million worth of repairs out of this request that had been included in the 2005 bond. He said that as worldwide demand for construction materials increases, the cost of the repairs will continue to rise.

Barry Knight of Orono said he had read through the district's referendum materials before coming to the McDonnells' home and plans to support the referendum.

Connie Apple, of Orono, said she understood why the repairs were necessary, but she asked school officials to assure residents that the money would be used specifically for the repairs and it would cover all major maintenance needs.

"I feel comfortable with the deferred maintenance for a lot of years," Lawson said. "We've had people scrutinize it up and down and sideways, and this is it."

Patrice Relerford • 612-673-4395