Different century, same choice
By Tim Ruzek
LYLE -- Almost a century ago, Lyle-area residents had to decide whether they could afford to build the town's first brick schoolhouse. Built in 1906, the three-floor building remains in use today.
But the old school's future is in question, and once again the school is at the center of debate.
Lyle Superintendent Jerry Reshetar said the "issues were exactly the same then as they are now." It's about residents deciding if they can afford a new school and whether there will be enough students to sustain it for years, he said.
On Dec. 2, the Lyle school district's nearly 700 voters will decide whether they want to or can afford to build a new K-12 school to replace the aging and below-standard schoolhouse.
The estimated $8.1 million, yearlong project would include a second gymnasium and new media classroom as well as the relocation of the ball fields and bus garage.
The Lyle School Board hopes to issue bonds to pay for the project. The state has promised to contribute about $2.4 million.
Trimming the cost
The plan is about $3 million cheaper than a proposal voters defeated last year. Nearly 90 percent of the district's voters went to the polls in November and voted 356 to 276 against an $11.1 million building plan.
A districtwide survey after the November vote showed the majority of respondents wanted to keep a school in Lyle, but they didn't know if they could afford it, Reshetar said. "That's really the hard part, because the bottom line is money," he said.
Faced with a building that no longer meets state education standards, the district went back to residents in the spring, asking them what they thought would be affordable. Those discussions led to the current $8 million proposal.
"I don't think it's going to get any cheaper than that," said Lyle Principal Royce Helmbrecht, who is "guardedly optimistic" that the new proposal will pass.
The project's Minneapolis-based architects trimmed $2 million from the price by switching to precast exterior walls rather than masonry work. Another $1 million was trimmed by switching to a conventional rather than geothermal heating system.
If voters decide the project is still too expensive, the district could renovate the current building. But any renovation would include installing an elevator to meet state accessability requirements and would end up costing about the same as the current proposal, Reshetar said. The state has said it will not chip in for a remodeling project, he said.
Tough on the community
The idea of raising taxes to pay for a new school and the possibility of the city losing its school if the bond issue fails in December has polarized the district. Some residents referred to it as a city vs. rural disagreement.
"It is very sensitive, and it is a difficult issue for the people of this district," Reshetar said.
With the project's funding based on increased property taxes, rural residents would shoulder a larger part of the tax burden due to their larger properties. In last year's failed bond issue, residents in Lyle voted 192 to 87 in favor of the project, but rural voters rejected it 269 to 84.
"There's a lot of people that are completely behind the school, and there are people out there that want to shut it down," said Doug Young, a school board member. But the majority of people, he said, understand that something needs to be done. It's just a matter of money.
Lyle City Clerk Diana DeBoer, who supports the project and thinks the bond issue will pass in December, said she hasn't heard much talk about the latest proposal, but she knows it's still a touchy subject.
DeBoer, whose husband, Dwight, is the school board president, said she hopes the "close-knit" community doesn't grow distant because of the issue.
"You just don't want to start slamming them for their opinion," she said of the opposing viewpoints.
One of those opposing views comes from Nyles Pederson, a Lyle-area farmer wo says the project is too expensive for the number of students who would use it.
Lyle might have a strong enrollment now, but it's possible open enrollment will decrease or not be allowed in future years, Pederson said. He also said he doesn't think Lyle is a growing community.
There aren't enough businesses in town to relieve some of the property tax burden rural residents would carry in funding a new school, Pederson said. "It's going to all have to come from the farm," he said.
Principal Helmbrecht, who also farms, said he knows some farmers are opposed to the project. "We can agree to disagree."
School officials said Lyle's K-12 enrollment has grown in the past four years, and gained 19 students from last spring. More than 40 of Lyle's 288 students are from outside the district, including 10 from Iowa.
Even with a new school, Helmbrecht said he would like to keep Lyle's enrollment at 300 to 310 students to keep class sizes small. Currently, Lyle is "basically a one-room schoolhouse per grade," he said.
This year, Lyle started offering an agriscience program for the first time in more than two decades. The school now also offers Spanish at the elementary and middle school levels.
School board member Darci Kline, who didn't support the bond issue in November, said she needed to look over the tax-impact estimates for the new proposal before she decides where she stands.
Kline, whose husband is a farmer, said the "farming community was very much against" the first referendum. "They felt like there were other options out there."
Kline said she thinks the old section of the school needs to go, but she doesn't know if voters will find the new plans affordable. "Times are hard right now," she said.
But Reshetar said the state's property tax refund program, known as "Circuit Breaker," would allow many owners of homesteaded property to qualify for a refund. He said program would relieve some of the tax burden and could create a more positive attitude for a new school.
Heather Farrell, a junior at Lyle, said it seems most students and teachers don't think the new bond issue will pass. Farrell said she hopes it does, because it would ease tight classrooms and bring air-conditioning.
"Hopefully, it's a lot cooler," Farrell said during the first week of school. "Right now, the school is really hot."
Patty Buntje, whose husband, Mark, teaches at Lyle, said people now opposed to the plan might feel differently when they see the completed addition. Some older residents who attended the school have said that if it was good enough then, it should be fine now, she said.
"That's not even the point," Buntje said. Technology and other educational materials take up space in the school now.
Concern with school closing
In a region that consists of several consolidated schools -- Southland, United South Central, Kingsland and LeRoy-Ostrander, to name a few -- Lyle's small-town school is a rarity.
If voters reject the bond issue again, "it doesn't mean closure of the school," Reshetar said. But the board would have to take a serious look at how the district would provide for the educational needs of its students.
"You're on a deadline here; it's like driving your old Chevy," Reshetar said of the original schoolhouse. When it'll stop functioning or in what situation it'll leave you isn't known, he said.
While noting the increased enrollment in recent years, Young said closing the school isn't an option. The district has to find a way to make the school survive if a new school isn't built, he said.
"You have to keep the school going, some how, some way," Young said.
Helmbrecht said one possibility would be to keep K-8 students in Lyle and send high school students out of town.
It's too hard now to predict where Lyle students would go if the district decided to close the school, which is the town's largest employer with about 50 employees, Reshetar said.
Lola Howard, a longtime Lyle resident who wants a new school, said she wouldn't want Lyle students to go to Austin. Howard said she thinks another failed referendum would close the school.
DeBoer said she is concerned that if the school closes, property values in town will fall. "We would have a lot of houses for sale and not anyone to sell them to," she said.
Buntje said she would move her family to another small town if her children had to go to a bigger school. She and her husband are small-town people, she said. "I would love to see my son graduate in a new school."
Residents should feel good about getting 100 years of use out of the old schoolhouse, Reshetar said. But something needs to be done to keep the school going when the original schoolhouse is unusable, he said.
"No one wants to lose their school," Reshetar said. "It's just plain difficult. We do have to do something. We can't avoid that fact."