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History lesson: Colfax school district referendum in 1976

By LeAnn R. Ralph

Editor’s note: The author of this article graduated from Colfax High School in 1976.

COLFAX  —  As the residents of the Colfax school district face the possibility of a referendum in 2016, it is interesting to look back at the history of the referendum in 1976 that resulted in building a new high school.

 In 1976, it appeared (at least to students who went to high school there) that the school district had paid little attention recently to basic maintenance or updating of the 1910 and 1924 buildings that housed the Colfax junior high school and Colfax senior high school.

The buildings were of a wood frame construction. The floors appeared to be covered in original tile, either green or tan in color, that was cracked in some places and missing in others.

Tall windows did nothing to hold in heat or keep out the heat of the sun and were cracked in places with sections of window broken out in other places.

When school started in August, the classrooms on the south side of the building were sweltering.

When the weather was below-zero in the winter, one classroom might be 45 degrees Fahrenheit, meaning it was so cold students could hardly grasp their pens to take notes, while another classroom might be 90 degrees Fahrenheit, with fans running to make it at least somewhat possible to sit there for a class period without sweating profusely.

The combination of an ancient heating system and broken windows made it impossible to control the temperature inside the classrooms.

The buildings were multi-storied, with creaky wooden staircases, cracked plaster and narrow, dark hallways. There was nothing that would even hint at providing handicapped accessibility.

It is no wonder a state inspector sent a letter to the school district highly critical of the buildings and questioning whether the school, or at least the 1910 junior high, would pass a safety inspection.

The only bright spot in the entire building was the Martin Anderson Gymnasium and the hallways off the gymnasium that housed the boys’ and girls’ locker rooms, the band room and the agriculture room.  By 1976, the Martin Anderson Gymnasium, with the stage that is still used today for school plays, Spotlight Night and the annual productions of the Sweet Adeline’s Red Cedar Chorus and the Dunn County Barber-shoppers, was already more than 20 years old.

The Martin Anderson Gymnasium was up and running at the time of the June 4, 1958, tornado that destroyed much of Colfax. The roof of the gymnasium was damaged in the tornado. The gym was used as a drop-off spot for clothing that people donated to tornado victims.

Historical photos of the Martin Anderson Gymnasium show the floor heaved from water damage to the point where volunteers were able to use the floor heaves as a kind of display rack for clothing.

Today, the Martin Anderson Gymnasium is more than 60 years old — a few years younger than the 1910 building in 1976 and about ten years older than the 1924 building in 1976.

At that time, the cost of a new auditorium to take on the functions of the stage in the Martin Anderson Gymnasium would have been $350,000. Today, it costs about $350,000 to reconstruct a couple of blocks of a street, and the cost of a new auditorium would be closer to $5 million.

This was the situation when the Colfax Board of Education began discussing the possibility of a referendum to build a new high school in January of 1976.

Here is the history of the 1976 referendum as chronicled in the pages of the Colfax Messenger:

January 8, 1976, Colfax Messenger

A special meeting of the Colfax Board of Education is scheduled January 12 to talk about the possibility of a new high school. The school district has $1.2 million available and would need $1.2 million more for a new high school and middle school.

January 22, 1976, Colfax Messenger

The Colfax school board has decided to appoint a referendum committee to consider the issue of building a new high school.

February 19, 1976, Colfax Messenger

A committee consisting of 28 members has been selected to consider the referendum issue.

February 26, 1976, Colfax Messenger

Several subcommittees have been formed to look at various issues pertaining to a referendum and building a new high school. Some of the concerns of the committees focus on developing a pre-election brochure and to formulate data for the public.

March 18, 1976, Colfax Messenger

The Colfax school board has set a referendum date on May 18.

April 15, 1976, Colfax Messenger

The committee asks the school board for $1,500 to hire an architect to evaluate the buildings.

April 22, 1976, Colfax Messenger

A letter has been received from a state official, Dr. Wayne Stamm, that is critical of the conditions of the school buildings: falling plaster, narrow hallways and wood construction as a fire hazard. The letter stated that the middle school/junior high would not pass a safety inspection.

May 13, 1976, Colfax Messenger

The 1910 and 1924 sections of the buildings were reviewed by the architectural firm Kortness and Ripley, who reported that a new building would cost $25 to $30 per square foot.

The proposal is to break the project up into stages.

Stage 1 — classrooms , libraries, cafeteria and kitchen — $1.8 million

Stage 2 — gym and ag shop — $2.8 million ($1 million to add the gym and shop)

Stage 3 — swimming pool — $3.25 million ($450,000 more for the swimming pool)

Stage 4 — auditorium — $3.6 million ($350,000 more for the auditorium)

The projected mil rate is a property tax increase of $159/$100,000 for stages 1 – 3

$197/$100,000 for all 4 stages

June 3, 1976, Colfax Messenger

The referendum held May 25 for $2.8 million for Stages 1 and 2 was defeated on a vote 529 for and

to 552 against.

The school board learned that waiting another year for Stages 1 and 2 would be expected to cost $218,000 more.

August 19, 1976, Colfax Messenger

The Colfax school board discusses the building project again.

September 23, 1976, Colfax Messenger

The Colfax school board holds another referendum discussion.

State trust fund money would not be available for borrowing for a building project after January 1, 1977. The school district has $600,000 already from the state trust fund and could get another $600,000 if the referendum was approved before January 1, 1977.

A petition was presented to the school board with approximately 300 signatures requesting another bond referendum for a new school.

Motions made by the Colfax school board for another referendum failed.

A special meeting was scheduled September 28 with the architects.

October 7, 1976, Colfax Messenger

The Colfax school board approved another $2.8 million referendum question.

The referendum election was set for October 26.

October 21, 1976, Colfax Messenger

The Colfax school board explained the proposed building project.

The board also learned that the school district valuation was $41 million, which was more than had been originally anticipated. The initial estimates of district valuation were around $35 million.

The school board also learned that the interest rate on the state trust fund loan would be 4.5 percent.

This same edition of the Messenger contained two advertisements about the referendum.

One full page ad — vote YES. Paid for by the Committee for the Betterment of the Colfax Public School System; Eilene Melgaard, treasurer

Another almost a full page ad — vote NO. Signed by school board members Clifford Loew,  Alton Anderson Henry Berg and Bernard Schindler (chair of the former building needs committee). The “no” ad said the proposed building project is too expensive per square foot. Elk Mound got more school for less money at $2.1 million. The people signing the ad were in favor of remodeling the 1924 building and adding on classrooms. There was no indication of when the Elk Mound High School had been built and no consideration of the increase in construction costs that might have occurred in the intervening years between Elk Mound building a new school and the current situation of the Colfax school district.

October 28, 1976, Colfax Messenger

The school building referendum passes on October 26, with 809 voting yes and 695 voting no on $2.8 million for Phase 1 and 2 for classrooms, libraries, cafeteria, kitchen, gym and ag shop.

The projected increase is $50 more in property taxes per $100,000 of property value.