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Stanley High School bond vote looms, here are some things to know

Stanley residents will head to the polls on March 7th to determine whether or not to move forward with a $19,500,000 bond issue that will fund a new high school addition as well as some renovations to the existing high school building.

The school board will be hosting an open forum on Sunday (February 19th) at Stanley High School, the forum will start at 8pm and is open to the public. We are hoping to livestream the public forum on the Stanley Gazette website, make sure to follow the Stanley Gazette on Facebook/Twitter for more updates on that.

The following are some of the frequently asked questions or frequently uttered statements being thrown out by both sides of the debate that could use further clarification:

“State aid to our school will be cut significantly because of the downturn in our state’s economy.”

Clarification: Schools receive an overwhelming majority of their state funding on a per pupil basis. There are currently no proposed budgets that would lower the per pupil amount. (Source: ND Legislature)

Could this change in the future? Yes, but it is worth noting that the per pupil funding number usually takes the elevator up and the stairs down.

“Our property taxes will rise with this new addition.”

Clarification: That is statement is true any way you slice it. Your property tax bill will rise to cover the debt service of the project, whether you buy or rent you will see your cost of living rise.

If money needs to be raised through property taxes then one of two things will happen, either valuations will rise or the mill rate will rise. The net result to the taxpayer will be the same.

What your property taxes will look like in coming years is difficult to forecast for a myriad of reasons.

Could there be another property tax buydown if the state’s economy dramatically improves? Possibly, but things would likely need to get drastically better and hold there for a while.

Will the commercial/industrial/utility tax valuations go down, shifting more of the burden towards homeowners and landowners if the economy doesn’t recover? Likely, commerical/industrial/utility are currently paying a disproportionately high % of the pie relative to almost any other community I have seen.

If/when this pie normalizes (likely by the valuations of the commercial/industrial/utility pieces shrinking), valuations or mill rate will have to rise to make up for the difference.

Will there be an increase/decrease in oil impact dollars? Your guess is as good as mine.

*It is also worth clarifying that the recent relief received in the form of a property tax buydown from the state appears to be in serious jeopardy of being re-upped, so your property tax bill will already be rising regardless of whether or not this referendum passes.

“Department of Education Secretary Betsy Devos will kill public education by cutting funding to public schools.”

Clarification: This statement has been frequently uttered since her appointment, both inside and outside of the context of this building debate. Even a passing knowledge of how schools in North Dakota are funded quickly debunks this myth. The Stanley School District received only 2% of their total funding through federal sources.

Even if you completely disagree with the President and DOE Secretary politically, making this argument doesn’t help in the context of the building debate nor does it help you outside the context of the building debate. It simply exposes that you have a fundamentally misunderstanding of how schools are funded.

Here is breakdown of the revenue sources for the Stanley School District:

Local/County Revenue Sources: $4,352,096.29 (47%)

State Funding Sources: $4,734,906.80 (51%)

Federal Funding Sources: $226,832.43 (2%)

Total Funding: $9,315,035.52

(Source: North Dakota Budget Office)

“We don’t need to update the school. Our facilities are fine and sufficient, they have handled enrollment numbers like these before.”

Clarification: While it is true that enrollment numbers have been this high before, it is worth noting that there have been significant changes in education since the 1970s-80s.  The amount of space/resources that are federally mandated for special education/behavior disabilities is astronomical in comparison to what it was 30+ years ago.

More money will need to be spent on updating the school whether this referendum passes or not. The facility is inefficient due to age and/or original build quality. Money spent on renovation will lower the recurring costs of operating, if done correctly.

A simple walkthrough will expose a myriad of problems that the school currently faces. Will the school crumble to the ground next year if nothing is done? Of course not, but operating under the impression that no money will need to spent on the High School building is probably not realistic.

Make sure to check out: Stanley Employment Opportunities

“The building addition(s) seem really expensive for what we are receiving.”

Clarification: While finding perfect comparables for this project would be nearly impossible, it is worth noting that the per square foot costs appear to be really high.

The Stanley Elementary School recently added an addition that was completed in 2016, I’ll focus on that project for this exercise since it was completed earlier this year, this will allow for a more accurate comparison with other recently completed projects.

For Reference:

Stanley currently has 301 students enrolled at the high school (7-12).

The Stanley Elementary Addition cost was $10,590,000 and was 25,315 SQFT which comes out to $418/SQFT and was completed in 2016.  *This number might be a little inflated due to some other renovations that took place at the same time to the existing elementary building.

*EDIT New information has surfaced to supplement/contradict the previous statement. The total project cost and the square footage of the addition figures that were previously reported are accurate. ***The price per square figure of $418 is NOT accurate and is much lower than originally reported due to a much high dollar amount being allocated towards renovations within that specific building round than originally thought. 

While I did say in the original article that the price per square foot was a little inflated due to other renovations that were rolled into that project round, that statement is misleading and in light of more detailed information being brought forward, I felt that statement needed to be changed and an apology needed to be issued to any readers who were mislead by that figure.

****Based off of this new information the Stanley Elementary Addition ran approximately $300/sqft, while the money spent on renovations is estimated  at $200/sqft.

I apologize for any confusion that was caused by the original post!

I’ll run through a few different comparables:

Lake Park-Audobon (MN): I included this school district because it was similar in size and enrollment (LPA is larger than Stanley and this school was built for 360 student 7-12). I also added them because they are a rural school district (although the district is located in western MN).

In 2012 they completed construction on a very nice 107,000 sqft high school. The total cost of that project was $21,100,000 dollars, with a per SQFT cost of $197/SQFT.

Admittedly, this isn’t a perfect comparable because of its location, it is also not a perfect comparable because the LPA build was also a higher end build than the Stanley Elementary addition (in my opinion).  (Source: Zerr-Berg Architechs, DL-Online)

Watford City:  Watford City recently completed a “State of the Art” 163,000SQFT High School with a Total Project Cost of $53,000,000, which came out to $325/SQFT. The school was built to accommodate 800 students. (Source: Forum Communications)

This is again not a true apples-to-apples comparison, mainly because the Watford City build was designed as a “State of the art” facility, common sense would lead me to believe that a state of the art facility would have a much higher per SQFT cost, then a basic build.

Williston: Williston also completed a “State of the Art” 225,000 SQFT High School with a total project cost of $70,000,000, or $311/SQFT. The school was built to accommodate 1,200 students. (Source: Forum Communications)

As I stated earlier, perfect comparables are difficult to find. It certainly worth noting that those examples are all higher end builds with much lower per/SQFT costs.

To further clarify, it appears as though Stanley is paying more for a Chevy Cruz than others are paying for a Chevy Corvette, which is concerning.

“We didn’t need the elementary school addition.”

Clarification: While people may disagree with the cost of the building or the scale of the project, it is difficult to argue that the prior (before addition) Elementary School footprint was sufficient.

Arguing that it is alright to cram 58 sixth graders into two classrooms with all of the mandates that the federal government has decreed over the years would be extremely difficult, something needed to change.

“What are the district’s options in the event that this referendum doesn’t pass?”

Clarification: A majority of bond referendums of this variety do not pass on the first try, some proposals are then amended to address some concerns and then are resubmitted. I imagine this would be the case in Stanley if the vote doesn’t pass, although the appetite to resubmit will be higher if the vote is relatively close.

It is also important to remember that this referendum will require a 60% “YES” vote in order to pass.

The need to obtain a super-majority, combined with the uncertain economic outlook of the local and state economy presents an uphill climb for supporters of the referendum.

“What is the current breakdown per grade of students, will we run into issues in the future if we don’t do something?”

Grade # of students
K 56
1 51
2 60
3 52
4 56
5 52
6 58
7 57
8 49
9 49
10 65
11 44
12 37
Total 686
Total K-6 (Elementary) 385
Total 7-12 (High School) 301
Average K-6 (Elementary) 55
Average 7-12 (High School) 50

 At first glance Stanley High School is poised to net a total of 20 new students in the next three years without any new students enrolling or existing students leaving prematurely, that represents an almost 7% increase in student population.

Stanley High School is poised to add 34 new students in the next five years without any new students enrolling in the district, which would be an 11% increase over the current enrollment total. (Source: Stanley School District)

An increase of 11% could put more pressure on an already vulnerable system. More staff/space as well as some restructuring will likely be needed to accommodate a student increase of that size. If more students move into the school district over that time period, the needs and urgency will increase proportionally.

*Worth noting that the four smallest classes K-12 are 8th, 9th, 11th, and 12th grades, while the largest class in K-12 is 10th grade.

Bottom line

My guess is there is a contingent of people who would still vote “no” to this building proposal if the exact same building could be built for $5 million dollars.  I would also guess that there is a contingent of people who would still vote “yes” to this building project even if the price tag was $41 million. Right or wrong, neither of those contingents are likely to budge from their position.

I would assume that a majority of the eligible voters are somewhere in between those two sides, and that is why these upcoming forums are so important. Get out and get educated on the facts so you can make an informed decision either way.

Advice

My advice to those advocating for a “YES” vote, please avoid painting those who have questions/concerns about the value of the project or don’t see the cost-benefit analysis the same way you, as “Anti-School”. Scrutinizing the cost of building projects and weighing out the pros and cons is the responsible thing to do.

I also urge those who are advocating for a “NO” vote to avoid painting anyone in favor of the project as “spendthrifts”. There are much worse things to spend money on than upgrading your community schools, especially in a community like Stanley.

Financial prudence is not something to condemn, nor should we discourage those who are seeking out ways propel the community forward by enhancing educational opportunities.

Have a good nature and spirited debate, preferably based on facts. Also, remember this isn’t the only shot the district has to get it right. Many school districts have went through the process multiple times before coming up with a plan that satisfied enough of the electorate to pass.

One side will prevail on March 7th but it is important to remember that an overwhelming majority are looking to make fiscally prudent decisions that propel the school and community in the right direction.

*This article was written by Ian Grande. If you have any comments/concerns please feel free to reach out to me via email at StanleyGazette@gmail.com.

-Feel free to comment on the Facebook post or on the Stanley Gazette website as well!


– Ian Grande is the Editor of the Stanley Gazette. If you have any comments or concerns please email StanleyGazette@gmail.com

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  • The Stanley Gazette covers community news in the Stanley, ND area.

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