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$11.6M estimate for ventilation upgrades at YME schools brings gasp, opposition from some

Instructor Peggy Kvam is shown leading a second-grade class at Bert Raney Elementary School in Granite Falls. The YME School District has announced it will move ahead with a $14 million improvement project. Tribune file photo

GRANITE FALLS -- A series of reports through the past decade have all recommended the Yellow Medicine East School District improve its buildings, and all favored remodeling over new construction as the most economical choice.

"Our buildings are tired, they need rejuvenation,'' Superintendent Al Stoeckman told an audience of around 40 people on Tuesday evening.

The superintendent and school board members hosted the meeting to answer questions about their decision to move forward with an estimated $14 million in improvements to the high school and Bert Raney Elementary school buildings in Granite Falls.

A group of residents notified the school district two weeks ago that they had retained legal counsel and were considering litigation against the district and the Minnesota Department of Education, which has approved the remodeling project.

Most of the work, or an estimated $11.6 million, will be devoted to improving ventilation in the school buildings. Stoeckman and representatives of Energy Services Group, of Wayzata, said that testing shows the two buildings do not meet current standards for air quality.

The project will also replace the existing steam heating systems in both buildings with hot water systems. Boilers and piping are beyond their expected life spans and need replacing, and the steam technology itself is outdated, according to the superintendent.

The project will also include upgrades to the school's electrical system; the installation of new, energy efficient lighting and controls; and involve tuck pointing work on the exterior of the 1930-vintage high school.

Board members have authorized the overall project and financing for it, and expect to begin calling for bids in the months ahead. State law allows the district to issue bonds for the health and safety portion of the work without a district referendum.

Portions of the project not considered health and safety work -- such as tuck pointing and lighting work -- will be financed as deferred maintenance and energy savings projects. The district will also commit a portion of its annual operating capital funds toward the costs.

The savings in energy use -- estimated at $70,000 per year -- will be used to retire the costs of the energy improvement projects. The district will also commit a portion of its annual operating capital funds toward the debt costs. The district's existing deferred maintenance levy monies will be directed to retire the debt for those improvements, according to information provided by Jerry Halloran and Perry Schmidt with Energy Savings Group.

Schmidt said the district also qualifies for $4 million in interest cost reduction through a federal stimulus program.

Current projections show the project would increase taxes by $109 per year on a $100,000 home and by $383 per year on an agricultural homestead valued at $600,000.

Criticism of the project has focused on two main issues: Some in the audience questioned why the school board was moving forward without seeking voter approval to finance the project. They warned that doing so would jeopardize the school's ability to win voter approval for any future referendum on operating funds.

Taking the matter to a vote would set a better stage for public support if the district seeks to replace two operating levies when they expire in 2012 and 2016. "It's clearly better for the long term,'' said Kevin Stroup. The operating levies together represent about $1,000 per pupil, or $400,000 annually for the district.

He and others also questioned the $11.6 million investment to improve ventilation. They said there has been no evidence that air quality in the schools is harmful to health or affecting student performance. They also noted that the state was not going to compel the district to do the work; nor would it penalize the district for having ventilation systems designed for the time periods they were constructed.

Board members responded that it would take extensive and expensive studies to document possible health or student performance issues due to improper ventilation, but that they believe the harm is real.

Board chairman Elmo Volstad said there was also concern that political issues in the district -- comprised of the original Clarkfield, Echo, Hanley Falls and Granite Falls school districts -- would jeopardize approval in a referendum.

The chairman said the board members did not want to "risk not doing this because it is so important for the health and safety of our kids.''

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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