In a previous article published by the Western Itasca Review and Scenic Range News Forum, Grand Rapids Voice stated that we all want the best possible education for our children that we can afford. In that article, we showed that the community cannot afford the proposed $80 million bond presented by the school district for several reasons. There are, however, other compelling reasons to oppose the approval of the bond issue.
The ISD School Board has published and disseminated reams of material stating how badly the district needs the proposed new schools. But, can we rely on the information presented by the district? Grand Rapids Voice believes the district has misrepresented the need for these new schools and has misled the public with their publications.
For five years, the district has worked with Johnson Controls to develop the plans to build the two new grade schools. It should be noted that Johnson Controls is in the business of building new schools and their efforts are directed to that end. To show the district pursued due diligence, they had Johnson Controls also provide proposals for refurbishing and remodeling the existing schools. In this, the district has had a company whose business is to build new schools do the proposal for the refurbishing of the existing schools which is not in their business expertise. The numbers clearly show that the proposals presented by Johnson Controls heavily favors building new schools. Big surprise!
The public has not been informed that Johnson Controls proposed and convinced the Duluth schools that closing of schools and consolidation was an answer to the district’s problems. Johnson controls then controlled the engineering, contracting and construction of the new schools they promoted. In doing so, they controlled the process and prevented any competitive bidding on the project. This is an obvious conflict of interest and appears to be continued in ISD 318.
Grand Rapids Voice was contacted by an independent company whose primary business is the remodeling and refurbishing existing school buildings to fit the needs of modern education. The company informed us they had approached the district asking to provide a competitive proposal to the building of new schools which is in their area of expertise. The district would not even consider allowing them to enter into the proposal or bidding process. Grand Rapids Voice was also informed that, while the estimates are not exact or precise, the independent company felt that the four existing schools could be refurbished, remodeled and made more energy-efficient for a community contribution of $25 million and potentially less. This possibility is far less than the Johnson Controls refurbishing proposal of $55 million and 30% of the Johnson Controls proposed $80 million for new schools. It appears that no companies other than Johnson Controls were permitted to bid on any part of the process and they claim they have exhausted all possibilities. This is misleading on its face.
At a recent public forum, Superintendent Thomas stated that the district had entertained submissions by four separate companies. When asked to name the companies permitted to submit proposals, Thomas said he could not remember the names of the companies. It is odd that the names of four companies submitting proposals on an $80 million project that has been in the works for five full years could not be remembered. It would appear that Thomas and the district cannot supply the names of competitive proposals as they, apparently, may not exist. The district is telling the public that the process has been open and transparent but the facts do not support this assertion.
The district states that skyrocketing K-5 enrollment requires new and expanded school facilities. However, the district does not tell the public that a substantial part of any increase is in the manner in which kindergarten students are counted. When kindergarten was ½ day, each student was counted as ½ student. This year all kindergarteners attend full days and are now counted as 1 student. By this simple change, the kindergarten enrollment doubled without adding a single child. In her article Itasca County Student Numbers Hold Steady by Kitty Mayo published in the Scenic Range News Forum and Mines and Pines, she showed clearly that the enrollment over the past 5 years in our community has not only held steady but has declined over the past 5 years. In their publications, the district has presented graphs of student population increase. The district, however, did not publish a complete graphic representation of student population and started their data at the low point following the recession of 2008 where enrollment dropped precipitously due to families leaving the area. Again, the district has misrepresented a crucial part of its rationale for building new schools. The data showed by Ms. Mayo shows that enrollment this year, with the change of the manner in which kindergarteners are counted, the student enrollment is less than in the previous four years and only 66 more than in 2011-2012. Assuming a kindergarten class of 200 children, the increase in enrollment from the manner in which they were counted accounts for 100 child increase. It is apparent that the enrollment is not skyrocketing and is, at best, holding steady. Again, the district is making an effort to mislead the public.
The district has made great efforts to show that the tax increase on a $150,000 house is nominal. The numbers may sound good but they represent a significant increase in property tax. For a $200,000 home, the increase represents an increase of approximately 10%. Business taxes will be substantial and the district does not mention the impact on the public in having to pay this increase due to increases in the price of all goods and services sold within the district. People with agricultural land that is non-homesteaded, hobby farm, Christmas tree farms, woodlots, etc., will pay additional by the acre. Rent for apartments will increase due to substantial increases in apartment building taxes. This is hardly an insignificant and minor increase.
What does Bigfork get from the bond proposal? Bigfork does not get a desk, a chair, a text-book or a sheet of paper. For their tax increase, Bigfork and other outlying areas get absolutely NOTHING.