Winsted-Lester Prairie Journal, Sept. 20, 1999

LP looks to the future for its school

By Luis Puga

Two weeks ago, the Lester Prairie School Board passed a resolution authorizing an excess levy referendum option on the ballot Nov. 2.

The board raised the levy $415 pupil units, the highest amount the state will equalize.

The tax impact on a property would vary, depending on the value of the property, but School Board Chairman Gene Starke added that with general education credits from the state, taxes will be reduced somewhat next year.

Supt. James Redfield observed that the referendum is just another step in the planning history of the school. Even before he came to the district in 1996, work was being done internally with the staff to consider future plans for the district.

Later, Doug Thomas of the Center for School Change was brought in to include the public in the planning process. Back then, some subjects discussed included growth toward the golf course to the north, partnering with Holy Trinity, and possibly expanding the school's library.

Redfield said that, besides setting up some goals, "We we're also trying to get community involvement. It was a real goal to get more community members to think about the community of Lester Prairie as well as the school district."

Starke added, "And back then, we were getting the same amount of turnout of people as we are getting now. That isn't a whole lot of community people."

While Professor Prudence Gushwa of the Minnesota State University ­ Mankato, who led a series of community meetings recently for the district, observed that the 70-plus people who turned out for the meetings was very significant, both Starke and Redfield feel the right mix hasn't appeared at the meeting.

The rural elements of the district are of concern. Redfield pulled out a map and showed Lester Prairie's boundaries. The district is small, with Lester Prairie being the only town within its borders.

Still, Starke observed that doesn't mean the district has many farmers. He said that his old school district of Nicollet had much more. As the district is small, so is its rural area.

Both men conclude that it is important to get the information concerning the referendum out to everybody.

Starke noted that farmers are a group who have been able in the past to convince others not to vote for something. He said that such activity resulted when the school built its last addition to the facility about 10 years ago. In part, Starke and Redfield concur that it isn't difficult to see why farmers might hesitate on spending more tax dollars as they are steeped in a thick agricultural crisis.

Another reason to get the word out is because it is hard to predict what voters will do. While the turnout to the last series of meetings was significant and generally positive for the school, how the majority will vote is still unknown.

Starke recalled that voter turnout was very large, about 92 percent, for the election in which the district bonded for the building.

Both men agree that the comments they have heard from the public individually have been generally positive, but knowing which way things will go is uncertain.

Voters who are against the referendum may simply not attend joint meetings, preferring to cast their opinion on the matter in the privacy of a voting booth.

With six weeks before the election, you won't see either of these gentleman selling the issue, however. There are rules that the board and administration cannot use district funds to run a vote-yes campaign.

Starke pointed out, "The school and the administration is not going to sell (the excess levy referendum). We can't sell it. If we try to, they're going to vote it down."

That responsibility, he believes, is on community members to convince others.

Gushwa also saw the importance of the role for motivated community members to convince others, and, as such, the board has formed a committee of three citizens to fulfill that role.

With that in mind, the school board still has its own reasons for adding the referendum to the ballot.

As one of the smallest districts in the state, in the lower 5 percent, Lester Prairie is also one of the few without an excess levy referendum. It is one of the few districts not taking advantage of the state's offer to equalize that money.

Both men also noted that bills and salaries are on the rise, and the district has no desire to enter into deficit spending.

Lastly, both feel that keeping up with neighboring districts is important, especially in technology, to providing a quality education.

A levy is not like a bond and voters may have some difficulty realizing the tangible benefits of authorizing the levy. After all, there will be no shiny new building to behold once the process is done.

Both men insist that the school has done well with its programs and that the additional money is needed to both sustain and enhance those areas.

Starke said, "You can see it out there with the number of doctors, lawyers ­ people who have written books ­ that have graduated in the last 20 years from this school district. To keep that going, we do need this excess levy."

Technology will be part of where the money goes. But recent budget meetings have also indicated that money will be used to meet rising costs. In that regard, the school board hopes voters don't think the excess levy referendum will only go towards salaries.

Redfield observed that the district must offer somewhat competitive salaries to attract and retain good teachers. This need might be difficult to explain to voters. He asked, "How do you explain that you need money to operate at a good level?"

So what might happen if the referendum does not pass?

Starke simply said "cuts," a word he neither likes to say or think about. However, those cuts would have to be made as painlessly as possible.

Redfield said the district would retrench as it has in the past. He notes that the district has been very efficient with the use of its resources, such as with the Honeywell project that will save the school dollars in the long run through energy efficiency.

Redfield believes a concept of a community school put forth by Gushwa is a valuable description of Lester Prairie. He said, "I think we have a community school and we'd like to keep it."

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