School bond referendum has flaws — but are they fatal?

When a school district in Minnesota places a bond referendum on the ballot, like the $30 million one before Marshall voters, state law prevents school officials from openly campaigning for its passage.

As a direct result, school officials attempt to “inform” and “educate” voters about the facts and issues surrounding the bond issue.

Marshall’s public school has effectively launched this type of campaign through mailers, public meetings, videos, a website, and countless flyers sent home with students in an attempt to inform residents about Tuesday’s vote.

And while school officials have largely succeeded to overwhelm voters with most of the pertinent information, there are some significant gaps.

One recurring theme expressed is West Side Elementary is “aging and requires critical and costly physical facility needs.” And while costly is important enough to be in bold on an informational flyer, what is missing is exactly how costly is costly.

A new boiler and roof are considered to be the most pressing infrastructure needs at the 64-year-old facility, but no one has bothered to determine exactly what it would cost for those improvements.

Superintendent Scott Munson can quote a 2012 study that indicated it would cost $12 million then to bring West Side “up to code,” which would have included a new boiler system and roof. How much more work would be included in that $12 million price tag and what it would cost today though wasn’t information provided to voters and that’s unfortunate because it actually adds some credence to the argument that a new building is justified.

The actual cost of the new elementary school is about $26 million, which assuming to bring West Side up to code would cost $14-$15 million today, seems a wise investment when factoring in the additional costs of maintaining, heating and cooling a 70-year-old building compared to a new one.

Another key component the school board failed to address involved the Pre-K program that has been touted as so essential to this referendum.

Marshall’s Pre-K enrollment more than doubled two years ago when the state provided funds to allow a tuition-free program to 4-year-olds in select schools. Marshall, along with about 125 other districts in the state, was selected for that initiative which had a two-year guarantee to provide the needed funds.

Those two years are up and now the legislature can’t agree upon an education budget bill, with Pre-K funding part of the $900 million gap between Democratic and Republican proposals.

And while the school officials have stressed the importance of Pre-K to a child’s development and the subsequent need to consolidate classrooms and as part of the justification for this referendum, they have failed to establish any kind of contingency in case state funding isn’t renewed.

A motion, resolution or at the very least, a public pledge to find money in the budget for Pre-K funding if the state fails to provide it would have been prudent considering the emphasis placed on the program in relation to this bond issue.

Considering the uncertainty surrounding this issue, one has to wonder if it wouldn’t have been smart to set the special election for a date after the legislative session ends. However, state law mandates what months schools can conduct special elections, with the next one in August (when school is out and families likely to vote yes are vacationing) followed by November, which would have postponed occupancy of a new building if approved.

However, despite these shortcomings, school officials have done a good job in listening to voters, and not just the ones who supported the first two proposals. After those referendums were defeated, the general consensus was a new elementary school was needed and that voters would support that.

So that’s what the school board has presented. And the one overreaching fact that can’t be simply ignored is enrollment is growing and has been for several years. Parkside has a capacity of 484 students and currently has 514 in it with an expected 540 in the next five years. With students being taught in the halls and teachers literally using closets and storage rooms as classrooms, that’s unacceptable … and it’s only going to get worse.

This is not a referendum without flaws and there are reasons to not support it. But those flaws are not fatal ones, and certainly don’t overshadow the glaring need created by swelling enrollment numbers and an aging building.

Come Tuesday, Marshall voters will have a decision: to either embrace the status quo or to want something more, and better, for our children and community. And while that comes with a cost, it is one that is worth it.