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RCW voters reject bond, 2-1

RENVILLE -- The Renville County West School District will not be building a new K-12 school anytime soon.

Voters overwhelmingly turned back a $19.46 million bond issue in Tuesday's primary.

The unofficial vote total was 1,325 to 618. Slightly more than 68 percent of the voters opposed the district's plan to build a new school in Renville.

The RCW School Board had decided to seek the bond issue this summer after receiving a recommendation from a citizens' task force which studied a variety of options for the district's buildings.

The failure of the bond in Tuesday's referendum leaves the board and the district at square one, with two aging buildings in need of extensive upgrades and repairs if they are to continue to operate.

School Board Chairman Eric Dahlager said he was disappointed in the vote.

"To see it go down this bad is very discouraging," he said. "I never got a single phone call from one person in the district to ask about this question. ... I don't know what that tells a person."

The board will need to have some discussions with people in the district's communities to find out how they would prefer to deal with the district's aging buildings, he said.

Dahlager said the board has a lot of work to do, probably more than if the bond issue had passed.

Opponents of the bond issue argued against the tax impact of the bond issue and also argued that the district should be talking with nearby districts about combining. Others argued that the district's aging buildings should be improved rather than torn down.

School officials said that a new building would bring all programs into one building and would improve efficiency.

Dahlager said he had been concerned going into the election because "it had been so quiet." To him, that meant that the people who weren't saying anything had apparently already decided to vote against the building project.

"We had to go out and ask the question," said Superintendent Lance Bagstad. "I see this as one step in the flight of stairs."

Now that the question about a new school has been asked and answered, the district will need to find the best way to move forward, he said.

"We're not going to skip a beat when it comes to education," Bagstad said.

"People need to know our school district is healthy," Dahlager said. "Our kids are doing well."

The first step for Bagstad will be developing an action plan to address deficiencies found during a recent fire marshal inspection, he said.

"We're going to have to spend some money right away," he said, because sprinkler systems are required in both buildings. Other code violations were found, too.

The school buildings the district uses currently are both aging and in need of major repairs to bring them up to current safety standards.

The elementary school in Sacred Heart is reportedly the oldest operating school building in the state. The oldest portion of the building is 107 years old.

The secondary school's oldest section is 87 years old. That school is on the same large plot of land where the new school would have been built. It would have been torn down after the new school was built.

The district can raise its property tax levy for health and safety needs without asking the voters, so property taxes will be going up to pay for the sprinkler systems and other fire code needs, Bagstad said.

The schools also need work on their windows, roofs, plumbing and wiring. Those issues can't be addressed in a health and safety levy.

The needs are at a level where the board will most likely need to ask for a bond issue to do the work, Dahlager said. The work will need to be limited, though.

The state Department of Education takes a dim view of building repairs that cost more than 60 percent of the cost of replacing the building. If costs run high, the district could go ahead with remodeling but would need the approval of two-thirds of its voters.

Dahlager said that, given the vote on Tuesday, he wasn't optimistic about a bond issue receiving that type of vote.