Making an informed decision

RTR School Board takes questions in final days before building referendum

Photo by Deb Gau RTR Superintendent David Marlette referred area residents to a booklet of financial information on a proposed $35 million building project, which would construct a new pre-K through 12th-grade school in Tyler. A vote on building bonds for the proposal will be held Tuesday.

TYLER — With just two days left before a $35 million building bond referendum, voters in the Russell-Tyler-Ruthton School District still had questions.

At a special RTR School Board meeting on Saturday, some area residents questioned the need for the building bonds and asked about financial details of a proposed new school building in Tyler.

While he wasn’t against building improvements at RTR, Rod Schulze said he felt there hadn’t been enough transparency about the proposal.

RTR Superintendent David Marlette said the focus of the meeting wasn’t to try to influence residents’ votes.

“I want you to make an informed decision,” Marlette said. “This is such an important question, we need to get everyone to vote.”

Marlette and the RTR School Board met Saturday afternoon to talk about the district’s upcoming referendum. The meeting had been postponed from earlier in the week due to severe weather.

On Tuesday, RTR will be holding a special election on a proposed $35 million building bond to fund a new pre-K through 12th grade school building in Tyler.

There were three main reasons for Saturday’s meeting, Marlette said. The first two reasons were to discuss the review and comment period for the building proposal and to answer any general questions about Tuesday’s election. The third reason was to try to answer questions from the public about a lawsuit against the RTR District.

Marlette said there wasn’t a lot he could answer about the lawsuit at this point. There were basically two different parts to the suit, he said. One was an injunction to stop Tuesday’s special election.

“That’s what the individuals dropped,” Marlette said. What’s left is the lawsuit, which Marlette said claims that the 2006 RTR consolidation plan can’t be changed. “We at the school district feel that’s false.”

However, none of the audience’s questions Tuesday were about the lawsuit — they were all focused on the proposed school building project and the $35 million in bonds.

Schulze said he had written a letter as a concerned citizen about the referendum.

“We do need to do something,” Schulze said of RTR’s school buildings. But he questioned why the district hadn’t done demographic or financial impact studies for the proposed new school. “What are the tax impacts in this community?”

Marlette went over some of the debt impacts that the $35 million building bond would have for RTR. Minnesota statutes set the debt limit for a school district at 15 percent of its actual market value, Marlette said. Based on the Minnesota Department of Education’s levy limitation and certification for 2018, RTR’s market value is about $987 million, and its debt limit is about $148 million.

“Right now we have zero debt,” Marlette said. If the bonding referendum were to pass, it would be well under RTR’s debt limit.

Another concern voiced at the meeting was that, if the building bonds’ estimated interest over 20 years is added in, the total cost of the project to the district would be around $52 million, not $35 million.

However, Marlette said the state Ag2School tax credit for agricultural properties would account for about $16.4 million. It would effectively cover the cost of the bond interest, he said.

Other concerns focused around the preliminary budget figures for construction management on the proposed new school building. One audience member pointed out that the budget figures for construction management fees in a handout provided by the school district had an error. The handout said construction management fees of $935,000 for a school building of 159,791 square feet broke down to 3 cents per square foot. The actual cost per square foot for the construction management fees worked out to about $5.85 per square foot.

Marlette said he had not caught the incorrect figure.

“I am sure it’s higher than 3 cents,” he said. However, he said bottom line of the construction cost would not change, and the construction managers, R.A. Morton, would not be given $35 million to play with.

An audience member said they were concerned about how tight the budget seemed for the proposed school building, and now that might affect the quality of construction.

“The budget is going to be tight, absolutely,” Marlette said. But that didn’t mean cutting corners. “It’s going to be a very good building, but it’s not going to be a fancy building.”

Schulze said he wasn’t against building a new school, but he had serious questions about this proposal. A “no” vote didn’t mean nothing will be done for RTR facilities, he said.

“We’re not trying to stop building a school,” he said.