St. Charles referendum concept

Concept drawing of proposed additions to the St. Charles high school/middle school.

ST. CHARLES — The St. Charles school district hasn’t had much success with construction referendums in the past.

Since 1993 — the year of first ballot measure asking for building funds since the current high school was built in 1966 — the district has seen five of six referenda get turned down by the voters. Two of those occurred recently, in 2016, when the school board went to voters twice and twice got voted down.

Monday night, the St. Charles School Board voted unanimously to move forward with another bond referendum — its third in a three-year span — asking district voters to approve $18.6 million in funding to renovate and add to its current facilities.

The board voted to accept the recommendation of the facilities task force that had voted 8-6 last month to favor just a single question be put before voters on the Nov. 5 ballot. That recommendation should be formally adopted at the July 15 meeting.

“I opposed both of those in 2016,” said Jim Blahnik, a member of the task force who said he went to the first task force meeting last fall not expecting to change his mind. But after voting no on an $18.3 million referendum and a $12 million referendum, he is now ready to vote yes, he said. “It is stripped away of all of the glitz and the bells and the whistles. It is functional. It accomplishes a lot of the bang for the buck.”

‘More palatable’

Blahnik and three other facility task force members explained the process they’d gone through since last fall and why they’d reached the recommendation that brought them to the school board Monday.

One of those members, Jason Frinack, said one of the big differences between this referendum and the two that failed in 2016 is the Ag-2-School farm credit for referendums. That credit reduces the impact on farmers of a construction referendum by 40 percent.

“Still, farm families and families on a fixed income will be hardest pressed to absorb the costs,” Frinack said. “But keeping the referendum to needs will keep it more palatable for these individuals.”

The referendum focuses on specific needs at the district’s two school buildings, Frinack said. Those items include a new kitchen and cafeteria addition at the elementary school and remodeling the old kitchen and cafeteria space into kindergarten and early childhood areas.

At the high school, the remodeling would include several old classrooms on the upper level of the 1966-era building that were part of the previous two referendum attempts as well as creating some commons space and classrooms for industrial arts, agriculture and food science. The plans would also add a new science wing that could be expanded upon for future needs. A new auxiliary gym would alleviate some of the practice space needs that were identified in the 2016 ballot questions.

Growing trends

The expansion would also help alleviate a future issue. Megan Roessler, a member of the task force, said the district is looking at a 14 percent increase in enrollment over the next 10 years. “What the trend shows is the enrollment should surpass the birth rate,” she said.

She also noted that the school should include space for a more modern style of learning, learning done collaboratively.

“Students today need to learn those skills,” she said, adding that collaboration reflects how people work as adults. “We need classrooms and space to be able to allow that to happen for students.”

The group also said that special education — something Blahnik said was one teacher in one room with four or five students when he first came to St. Charles in the 1960s — requires a reconfiguration of space as more and more students are taught under the special education umbrella.

“It’s a growing population that’s integrated into the learning environment,” Roessler said. “There’s much more early intervention.”

The next steps for the district include crafting the wording of the question on the ballot, submitting its plan to the Minnesota Department of Education for approval and holding public information meetings to educate voters on the plan before the Nov. 5 ballot.

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Regional Reporter

Brian Todd is a 1997 graduate of Nebraska-Omaha. He covers Goodhue, Wabasha, Winona and Houston counties and writes a weekly column about the life of a reporter.