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Colfax steering committee thinks education the answer for building projects, but survey says “no”

By LeAnn R. Ralph

COLFAX  —  Additional information will not change the minds of residents in the Colfax school district, especially when it comes to adding air conditioning or building an auditorium.

According to Sue Peterson of School Perceptions, the company that sent out surveys to all school district residents in March pertaining to what kind of building projects residents might be willing to support in a referendum, once people have answered a certain way on a survey, providing additional information about why the project is necessary would be unlikely to change their minds.

Peterson spoke to the Colfax school district’s steering committee formed to evaluate questions for a possible referendum at the committee’s first meeting May 12.

About 25 school district residents attended the meeting to serve on the steering committee.

Lee Bjurquist, Gary Stene and Ken Schmitt were nominated to chair the committee.

Bjurquist was elected chair of the committee by ballot vote.

All together, 587 surveys were returned, and according to the results, school district residents are likely to support a referendum for about $5.9 million to replace temporary classrooms ($1.4 million), to expand and improve classrooms technical education and for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) ($600,000); to complete infrastructure needs, such as roof replacement and temperature controls to make the buildings more efficient ($2.2 million); to improve school safety and security by moving the high school office to the front of the building ($500,000); to purchase six Liquid Propane fueled buses that are more energy efficient than diesel buses ($600,000) and to replace the bus maintenance garage ($550,000).

According to the survey results, district residents are unlikely to support an additional $9.3 million in referendum spending for air conditioning ($3.3 million), a multipurpose room and updating the middle school locker rooms ($750,000), building a high school auditorium ($4.9 million) and adding locker rooms to the elementary school ($300,000).

No A/C

Air conditioning is among the more expensive items that district residents indicated they would be unlikely support at a cost of $3.3 million.

Air conditioning would improve indoor air quality, control the growth of mold, and would extend the life expectancy of the 350 computers in the school buildings.

Several members of the steering committee commented that they had thought air conditioning would strictly be for the comfort of teachers and students and had not thought about air quality, mold and computer equipment.

Todd Kragness, president of the Board of Education, noted that in ten years, school would likely be held year around, and perhaps district residents would be more willing to pay for air conditioning when students were in school during the hot summer months.

According to information obtained by Bill Yingst, school district administrator, the cost of building projects increases by about 3 percent every year.

A 3 percent increase per year would increase the cost of air conditioning by about $1 million in ten years.

At a 3 percent increase, in ten years, the cost of $15 million in projects would increase to $20 million.

In 20 years, the cost of $15 million in projects would increase to $26 million.

Auditorium

School district residents also indicated they would be unlikely to support building an auditorium at a cost of $4.9 million.

A new auditorium would have a handicapped accessible stage, improved acoustics over the Martin Anderson Gymnasium, a larger stage to provide more space for performers, which would increase the safety of those performing and decrease the likelihood of people accidentally stepping off the stage.

A new auditorium also would seat 600 people and would mean that the Martin Anderson Gymnasium would not be closed to physical education classes for at least two months out of the school year to accommodate the school play, the Dunn County Barbershoppers’ annual performance, Spotlight Night and the junior prom.

In addition, an auditorium could be used to bring in nationally-known speakers, musicians and theatrical performers, which would bring more of the cultural arts to the Colfax community, Yingst noted.

The lobby and the restrooms are already built for an auditorium, which be located directly to the west of the Martin Anderson Gymnasium.

Locker rooms

The auditorium part of the project would include removing the stage in the Martin Anderson Gymnasium and replacing it with a multipurpose room as well as updating the middle school locker rooms.

A tour of the middle school locker rooms, which were at one time the high school locker rooms, revealed that the locker rooms have not been changed in 40 years.

The Martin Anderson Gymnasium is about 60 years old.

The project that received the least support among survey respondents was adding locker rooms in the elementary school for $300,000.

When junior varsity games are played in the elementary gymnasium, the visiting JV players change clothes in the restrooms at that end of the building, and while they are changing their clothes, members of the public are entering and exiting the restrooms, Yingst noted.

Bus garage

Sid Hoke, co-owner of H&H Plumbing, noted that when he had filled out the survey, he had misunderstood what “bus maintenance building” referred to and had answered “no” on his support.

Hoke said he thought the question was referring to the bus garage where buses are stored and wondered how many other people had made similar mistakes concerning the bus garage or on other parts of the survey.

A tour of the bus maintenance garage revealed that when two buses are parked side by side, you have to inch your way along the wall in order to get to the front of the building.

Over the years, buses have become larger. Buses used to carry 56 or 58 passengers, but nowadays buses carry 70 passengers or more, Yingst noted, adding that the records he can find for the building indicate it dates back to 1963, although several long-time residents of the community say they believe the building is older than that.

Of the projects that district residents said they might support, the bus maintenance building gathered the least amount of support.

Undecided

About one-third of those who indicated they were undecided on the surveys could possibly be persuaded to support certain projects, Peterson said.

The remaining two-thirds of those who were undecided or who already indicated they would not support the projects cannot be persuaded with additional information, she said.

“The survey results are predictive,” Peterson said.

There are not enough of the undecided people who could be persuaded to make a $15 million referendum successful, she said.

Gary Stene, who had served on the Colfax school board at the time it was put to referendum to build a new high school in 1978, noted that it had taken two tries to get that referendum passed.

Lee Bjurquist, the retired school district administrator serving as the chair of the committee, noted that Colfax school district residents are “meat and potatoes kind of people” and that they will approve what they believe is necessity.

Many of those serving on the steering committee expressed the belief that if school district residents received more information about the projects, they would be more likely to support more of them, but Peterson remained adamant that additional information would not change the minds of enough people to make a difference in referendum results.

Peterson said that School Perceptions has done enough surveys in school districts over the last 20 years to know that once people have answered a certain way on a survey, additional information is unlikely to persuade them.

If the steering committee decides to put forward $5.9 million in projects on a referendum in the November election, the survey results indicate the referendum would be successful, Peterson said.

Next meeting

The Colfax school district’s steering committee meets next on June 8 at 6:30 p.m.

At the next meeting, members of the steering committee hope to make a decision on whether to move forward with a referendum, and if so, to determine which projects should be put to referendum.

The Colfax Board of Education would have to approve the wording for a referendum question at the July meeting.

The referendum question(s) would have to be submitted to the county clerk by early August in order to be included on the ballot in the November presidential election.

Several committee members wondered if it would be wise to break up the projects into several referendum questions instead of an “all or nothing” question.

Peterson said that might be a strategy worth considering.

The Colfax school district has not had a referendum in 20 years.

Because of decreases in state aid over the past five years, there is no money available in the budget to do any of the projects or to even start any of the projects, Yingst said.

Many school districts across the state are in a similar situation with their budgets, and during the April election, the majority of about 70 school referenda state-wide were approved.

Anyone who is interested in a tour of the school buildings to see what was included on the survey questions or anyone with questions about the possible projects is urged to contact Bill Yingst at 715-962-3155.