River Ridge school board takes steps toward ‘one-site’ referendum

By Correne Martin

“This has been dragging on too long,” River Ridge School Board Clerk Ken Nies contended, in addressing over 50 people present at last Wednesday night’s school board meeting. “I want this school district to be here 50 years from now. We’ve got to get something done soon and done right. I’d move everything [to Patch Grove] and be done with it.”

Nies was, of course, speaking about the highly-debated, drawn out situation the district has faced for nearly two years in determining the future arrangement of its aging school facilities in both Patch Grove and Bloomington.

The school board met for more than two hours Wednesday night, July 9. Almost half of that time was spent by board and community members civilly discussing the next step toward a solution that will ultimately be the best educationally and financially.

The board voted, 5-2, to have a resolution drafted in time for its Aug. 23 meeting. The resolution would call for a Nov. 4, 2014, referendum asking voters to approve placing all of the district’s students under one roof in Patch Grove—which has a bigger building, more land and newer updates than the Bloomington site. In Wednesday night’s 5-2 decision, Nies, Lea Breuer, Bob Mathre, Kerri Schier and Bob Key each voted in favor of the resolution. Randy Martin and Dave Breuer were opposed, yet neither revealed their feelings Wednesday night against the resolution or the one-school option. Martin elaborated that he voted “no” until he can get more information about the condition of the schools’ HVAC systems.

After the meeting, Breuer stated, “All Randy Martin and I have ever asked for is numbers. We want to find out what it would cost to fix what we have until we can all fit into one site. You can’t ask the people to pay for one concept without telling them what other concepts cost. And you cannot responsibly spend money for something like this with declining enrollment.”

“You’re going to have to fix both buildings if we keep them both open,” Nies said. “If you do that, you’ll just be throwing money down the rat hole. If we do it right, right now, we can save money.”

What Nies alluded to was, according to the district’s consulting firm, the $302,500 in savings estimated if only one building was operational ($172,500 in staffing, $50,000 in transportation, $8,000 in traveling staff/mileage, $37,000 in maintenance and $35,000 in utilities).

Superintendent Lee Pritzl has asserted in the past that the savings from the one-site concept would mean the district could continue providing a high level of quality education rather than face budget cuts.
“We can’t afford to cut any more,” Lea Breuer added Wednesday.

About 10 audience members voiced their opinions Wednesday night and the majority rallied around Nies’ statement to move all students to the Patch Grove site, which would undoubtedly involve a need for expansion and upgrades to the facility.

According to the district’s one-site architectural design documents, the cost of putting all operations in Patch Grove would be around $10 million—$8.5 million to fix up the facilities as they stand plus roughly $1.5 million to move the football field and track there.

“That’s 75 cents a day our taxpayers would have to pay, for a better education for our kids,” added parent and Community Communication Group (CCG) member Justin Campbell.

One audience member questioned what would happen to the football field and track in Bloomington if that building closed. Obviously, if they continued to be utilized, there would be expenses associated with keeping the buildings open and up to code for users at athletic events. However, if such sporting facilities were relocated in Patch Grove, a savings would eventually be realized.

Jane Patterson, a citizen and member of the CCG, acted as the devil’s advocate at last week’s meeting, asking, “What if [a referendum for one site] doesn’t pass?”

“We have to educate people, before the referendum, on the reasons behind one school. If it fails, we turn around and educate people again, and try for a referendum a second time,” Nies stated.
Fellow citizen Joan Senn posed the question, “Do we have a board that’s willing to step forward and say, ‘We want one school?’ If so, you have to find a way to uniformly promote it.”

If the resolution passes at the next special meeting of the board (Monday, July 14), the board will be promoting a one-site concept to the district’s taxpayers, not to exceed whatever dollar amount the board approves.

Bill Mergen, a former board member, also added his opinion: “Twenty years ago, Iowa-Grant went to one site. There are people there who fought that change tooth and nail but they got it right and they’re better because of it.”

All students within the River Ridge School District, except the fifth and sixth graders, are currently housed in the Patch Grove location. That includes the original 1960s facility as well as the 1980 and 2001 additions. The Upper Elementary School in Bloomington, a facility that was also built in the early 1960s, is utilized by fifth and sixth graders at this time.

To date, the dialogue of the “Civil War,” as Nies labeled it, has covered the 50-year-old educational facilities with worn out infrastructure and finishes, discrepant HVAC systems and air quality, asbestos and mold issues, energy deficiencies, etc. The building and grounds committee first realized the extent of its problems in the fall of 2012, when the boilers in the Bloomington school building needed repair to the tune of $50,000. Since then, the board and the Community Communication Group has met and hashed over their options on countless occasions, making every effort to involve taxpayers in those discussions as well.

“It’s like banging your head,” Lea Breuer said. “I do not want to keep going through this for another 15 months to two years. If we’re going to make something happen, let’s move forward and get it done.”

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