by Howard Lestrud
ECM Political Editor
Sen. Karin Housley, R-Washington County, is carrying legislation to help Forest Lake Area Schools gain equal access to the Alternative Facilities Program to meet deferred maintenance needs.
Housley on Thursday (April 4) appeared at the State Capitol before the Senate E-12 Division Committee along with four people to testify in favor of the legislation outlined in Senate File 1330.
The Forest Lake School District, ISD 831, nearly qualifies for the average age of facilities and for the 1.5 million square feet of space requirement. The thrust of the bill is to provide access to funding that would keep school buildings in a state of good repair and to not allow buildings to deteriorate when a new facility should be constructed.
A Forest Lake Area Schools task force currently has been examining the facilities of the district and made a report to the Forest Lake School Board on Thursday night. In its report, the task force revealed that more than $134 million will be required to repair or replace deteriorating facilities.
Larry Martini, business manager of Forest Lake School District 831 since 2001, said Housley’s legislation amends the law that allowed the North St. Paul School District and the Stillwater School District to participate in the Alternative Facilities Program even though, at the time, neither of them met the qualifications of the statute. Just last session, the Wayzata School District was allowed to participate in the Alternative Facilities Program. Forest Lake modeled its bill language after that of Wayzata, Martini told the Senate committee.
School Districts that are over 1.8 million square feet and 15 years in average building age or 1.3 million square feet and 35 years in average building age are allowed to submit a multi-year deferred maintenance plan to the Minnesota Department of Education, Martini said. Once the Minnesota Department of Education approves a school district’s plan, he said, that district has access to a property tax driven funding stream.
If Forest Lake were to be approved for this plan, it is estimated the school district would access the funding at a level of approximately $1.5 million to $2.5 million per year. Forest Lake’s total tax levy is $17 million per year, including health and safety funding and deferred maintenance funding that would cease.
Larger districts can fund deferred maintenance without voter approval through this program, while other school districts meet their maintenance needs through voter-approved bond referendums, capital project levies and/or operating referendums.
The Forest Lake district has had difficulty passing referendums in recent years and has only been given authority to renew its operating levy.
Rob Rapheal, Forest Lake School Board president, asked the committee to support the district’s request and to lay the bill over for inclusion in the omnibus bill. Rapheal said he takes “great pride” in how Forest Lake district teachers and staff are able to give students an education that is “rigorous and relevant.” He said he was frustrated that the school facilities have reached a critical point in terms of age and disrepair.
Forest Lake Schools have the lowest levy referendum amongst all the Suburban East Athletic Conference schools, Rapheal told the E-12 Division Committee. Like many other districts with a low tax base, Forest Lake gets a fraction of the levy dollars generated by school districts with a greater retail or industrial tax base, Rapheal said.
Rapheal said school facilities are, in some cases, in shambles. The Forest Lake Rangers have not hosted a home track meet in more than 15 years because the track has disintegrated to the point that it is unusable, he said.
Tom Paul, former school board member, said it is his belief that had the district had ongoing funding over the years to properly maintain its equipment and facilities, then the magnitude of the some of those needs today could have been voided or minimized.
The relief advocated in Housley’s bill is something Stillwater had passed the last session of the Legislature, Forest Lake Schools Superintendent Linda Madsen informed the committee.
Sen. LeRoy Stumpf, DFL-Plummer, said he was aware of other school facilities across the state that are in need of repair. He asked the Forest Lake contingency why it has been difficult to pass levy referendums. “Is it something in the water?” he asked.
Business manager Martini theorized the property tax base was a reason for the failure to pass levy referendums.
“You have put a very difficult question before this committee, and we will have to answer it in some way,” Stumpf responded.
Committee Chair Chuck Wiger, DFL-Maplewood, applauded the testimony and acknowledged the need in Forest Lake. “We will see what can happen this session,” he said. “I can’t disagree that there is not a disparity,” Wiger said.
Howard Lestrud can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org