Some shocked, some glad about failed referendum in Pierz

Todd Preimesberger said he was disappointed, then changed that to “shocked,” in fact “really shocked” that the Pierz School building referendum didn’t pass, and that it failed by a 384 vote margin.

“I don’t think people realize the benefit of this,” he said. “I don’t think people did enough of their own research and worried about their own taxes and not the benefit to the kids.”

The final vote on the building referendum that would have allowed renovation and improvements to Healy High School and Pioneer Elementary, was 1,012 against and 628 in favor.

Although he hopes the district tries again, Preimesberger said he’s afraid the district will cut back to lower the cost.

“That’s what happened when we built Pioneer Elementary the first time (1991), and that’s why we’re in the predicament we’re in,” he said. “If they bring it down, I think it’s going to cost the same, but we’ll get less.”

Pierz Mayor Toby Egan said he had mixed feelings about the results.

“I know there are some things they need and some things they want,” he said. “Just from people I’ve been talking to over the last few months, people felt it was too big a price tag. They seemed concerned that we’d be $20 million-plus in debt.

“On the one hand I’d like to have seen it go through,” Egan said. “On the other hand I understand people’s concerns.”

The improvements at Pierz Healy High and Pioneer Elementary the referendum would have paid for, had it passed, included:

  • Renovation and expansion of the Pioneer Elementary School parking lot to accommodate the current needs for events at both schools;
  • Building one larger gym connecting both schools to be used by students in both schools, to be used by the multiple classes of physical education going on each day now at Pioneer Elementary;
  • Converting the current Pioneer Elementary gym into two levels of classrooms, rather than add that new construction on to the grades 4-6 wing;
  • The addition of a new band room to the high school; and
  • Building an auditorium to the north of the current stage, for use by the school and community for the performing arts, theater, large group presentations, guest speakers and other events.

Preimesberger said he attended several public meetings led by Business Manager Earl Athman and Supt. George Weber, and hoped that if the district worked toward another referendum, people would come to listen at any meetings held.

One big misunderstanding Preimesberger said he felt was evident, was how open enrollment works.

“I don’t think the residents understand the benefit of the open enrollment,” he said. “Everyone thinks this open enrollment is costing us so much, but it’s benefit to us. We get more in open enrollment money than taxes we generate to run the school.”

One resident, who feels open enrollment is the cause for the need to invest such a large amount of money is Steve Waytashek.

He said he attended three of the public meetings and asked why the schools were overcrowded. After he learned 23 percent of the schools’ students were open-enrolled he said he began to talk to others.

He was worried the referendum would pass.

“The voters did it. We just provided them with some information and they are to be commended that they came out and voted,” Waytashek said. “The big thing is the voters made it happen, no one else. I’m proud of our community.”

Waytashek said he felt the district had “all kinds of areas they could improve in.”

“My gosh, this is an agricultural community and their ag shop is a joke,” he said.

He’d like to see the district build a bigger shop and  teach farm mechanics.

“That’s a useful tool. If they’re going to stay in this area, chances are they will be involved in farming,” Waytashek said.

Supt. Weber and those who worked to get information out about the need for the referendum, felt disappointment at the result, but also believe they heard the message, he said.

“Our feelings are that we put forth a good plan that was efficient and good for the community and schools, and we have lots of staff who pour their heart into what we do,” Weber said.

Weber said based on discussions at the public meetings, he believed it was too large of an increase at this time.

Part of that may be due to the current status of agriculture profits and how the state requires school construction to be distributed only on property values of landowners in the district, Weber said.

In Minnesota, unless the Legislature changes it, for school building referendums, farmers are taxed on all of their acreage. It if had been an operating referendum, they would be taxed on their home and one acre of property.

“We felt that since we have not asked for much historically it would be supported and since the request is what most people around us are already paying, that it would be supported,” Weber said. “But again, maybe people look at the difference between what they currently pay compared to what they have to pay, and maybe that is the biggest factor in making their choice. I can understand how that is a challenge.”

Moving forward, Weber said the items that must be addressed as soon as possible are the need for classrooms, a band room and more gym space for the children.

“We will evaluate what to do with those challenges and what order we address them,” he said.

The options will be discussed with the School Board.

“We will gather information on costs of rental classrooms, evaluate where we will house teachers immediately and then go from there,” Weber said.

“We have always tried to seek out all the data and put forth efficient plans that still give us a chance at being a great school system,” the superintendent said.

He praised the work of the employees at the district.

“Our employees are excellent. We have assembled terrific teachers, staff, coaches and performing arts specialists that do wonders with children. That is the main reason why we have built our success and our popularity with parents,” Weber said. “It takes years to make that happen and takes a lot of support and energy from lots of people. That will remain our focus.”

It has not been decided if another referendum will be put before voters soon.

School districts must wait six months to propose another election when they are going out for the same plan, Weber said.

However, if the School Board determines the plan should be changed, then it can put a different model in front of the voters at any time, as long as it is on one of the allowable election dates.

New allowable election dates passed by the Legislature will take effect Jan. 1, 2018. They include the second Tuesdays in February, April, May, August and November (General Election date).

Currently, special elections may only be held 30 days before or after township elections in March; or 56 days before or 56 days after a regularly scheduled election, such as the Aug. 8 primary and Nov. 7 general election this year.

The unofficial results by polling place (results won’t be official until canvassed by the School Board) are:

  • Early votes: 178 – yes, 71 – no; Pierz City Hall: 296 – yes, 382 – no; Buckman City Hall: 2 – yes, 135 – no; Lastrup City Hall: 79 – yes, 293 – no; Harding: 33 – yes, 131 – no.

Of the 2,700 ballots assigned, 1,046 were not used, two were rejected, four were spoiled and eight ballots were mailed out, but not returned.