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Among the potential projects in line for Princeton School’s long-range facilities plan would be improvements to the core of the high school, which is currently the oldest building in the district. An Options Committee made up of community members is expected to bring a list of facilities improvement recommendations to the school board in the coming weeks, which could mean a May referendum.

The wheels of Princeton School District’s long-range facilities plan are turning quickly, and signs are pointing to possible referendum vote in May.

A committee made up of community members has met three times in the past six weeks to discuss various options to improve the school’s outdated facilities.

Should the school board decide to take their recommendations to a public vote, it would be the first time it has done so since 2013.

Then, voters approved $29.95 million that was used to build Princeton Primary School along with activities facilities at the high school.

“Things are moving really quick now,” Princeton School District Superintendent Ben Barton said.

He added: “The Options Committee finished up. That group is done. They had three marathon sessions in the last month or so. One of their big items they needed to focus on is all of the items that were identified as things that need to change. If all of them were addressed it’d be about a $60 million price tag.”

The school has been working with Vaughn Dierks of St. Paul-based Wold Architects to determine needs, plans and price tags.

The estimated dollar amount for the recommended projects is between $53 and $58.5 million.

However, a finance committee – also made up of community members from the Options Committee – met on Monday to discuss potential tax impacts, and they also ultimately determined they are uncomfortable with asking for more than $50 million if it goes to a public vote.

The financial ramifications for what the Options Committee recommended focuses mainly on improvements at the high school but does include improvements to the Princeton Intermediate School and the Student Services building.

Approximately $35-39 million would be set aside for high school improvements, which would include new shop areas, chiller/boiler plans, improved security at entrances, special education renovations, core renovations to the original core of the building, kitchen expansion, and athletic facilities improvements (including synthetic turf on the football field).

The biggest chunk of that list is renovating the original core, which is estimated at $11-12 million. The breakdown also includes $2 million for the Student Services building, $1.5 million for furniture, fixtures and equipment, and $1.5 million for improved technology.

“There was a lot of discussion and a lot of energy around the room in terms of people’s thoughts in terms of what was more important than other things,” Barton said. “That whole prioritizing piece does lend itself to lots of debate. We have that pretty well flushed out in terms of what things would be left on the list or taken off in terms of what the dollar amount is.

“Quite honestly, it’s sad to say this, but if you’ve got much less than $40 million, it’s not going to meet nearly as many needs as people have identified. If you start getting into the $30 and $20 million, the dollar doesn’t go near as far as it did a few years ago and you couldn’t do as much. If you did $20-30 million, there’d be still quite a few people pretty frustrated, and that’s if we do anything at all.”

PHS is biggest priority

Dierks is a partner with Wold Architects and is a 1986 graduate of Princeton High School. He works with several school districts per year on long-range facilities plans and helped oversee the construction of the primary school. He attended the high school while the core that now needs to be replaced was being built. That, he said, is the biggest priority of the project.

“Everyone agrees that the three buildings that need the most support are the high school, intermediate school and student services. However, (the committee) said if we really have to get into prioritization we especially need to deal with the high school needs. It’s been there a long time. The shops need help, the original square to the building is the oldest building in the district at this point, and they said ‘we have to deal with these things.’ It doesn’t mean that other things aren’t in need, but that’s got to be first.

“At the intermediate school, there are issues around the south side of the building, but we want to make sure we do that right. If we have to not add that to the scope of things because it’s going to cost too much at this point doesn’t mean we won’t in the future. We just don’t want to take a shortcut approach on it.”

Potential tax impact

The tax ramifications to Princeton residents is yet to be determined, though Barton said they have rough estimates.

He did say that if about $40-45 million was approved, the tax increase would be less than it was when the $29.95 million was approved in 2013.

The exact numbers that come from this committee will be presented to the board before a vote.

“There is more housing and more industry to spread that around,” Barton said. “The finance committee was looking at about $45 to $49 million. I think they wanted to stay under $50 million. The other piece we discussed is if it would be appropriate to ask multiple questions on the ballot. That was brought up by a couple of people, but the majority of the group didn’t think that was a good idea.

“But all of these things are still discussions and are something that will be shared with the school board.”

Next steps in process

There are a few more steps the committee and board must take, and for the issue to go to voters in May, it needs to be decided on the Feb. 18 regular school board meeting.

The next step in the process is getting two or three people from the Options Committee to present their final recommendations summary to the school board.

After that, Barton said school staff would promote and schedule a community meeting to both inform citizens of the plan and also get additional feedback. That sets up a potential school board vote on Feb. 18.

“Those are the pieces that we’ve got in mind right now,” Barton said. “If there are other things that pop up, we’ll try to be responsive and adaptive and if we need to add things, we will. The board chair and vice-chair need to be supportive enough to put it on the agenda, which I feel like they would. If it gets on the agenda, the board will vote to go out for May. If it doesn’t pass, my gut would tell me they would take a little time to process and provide direction on what to do at a later date.

“It’s impossible for me to answer [if there will be a referendum] At the end of the day, it’s the seven board members who make that decision. My role is to help facilitate the process so that we get community participation, be as transparent as possible and just listen to people. So far, this process has started from us listening to people and what they have indicated they feel like they want and what they need.”

The entire process was set in motion late in 2019 and has moved quickly for many reasons.

After several years of failed attempts, especially during and shortly after the 2008 recession, referendums are gaining momentum. In November, more than 80% passed in Minnesota, including a Milaca district that had seen several recent attempts go down.

Another reason to expedite the process is to avoid having the vote coincide with a presidential election that is sure to bring nationwide volatility.

That would mean delaying a potential vote until May, 2021, which Vaughn said would lead to significant cost increases.

“[Schools] don’t really like to go to the voters with other things on ballot like presidential elections because the message of why they need community support gets lost in the hostility of different elections,” Vaughn said. “There’s a timing cycle that’s involved. There really aren’t too many districts considering going to voters in November.

“Princeton probably realizes if they’re to wait until spring or fall 2021, it has to go through design and construction process and it could be several years before they get the benefit of it. So I think they may have pushed the long-range planning forward at a faster pace than what the community might see as a comfortable time frame, but it’s simply just to give them an option of saying if we want to consider something for a spring referenda, we want to make sure we’ve got that as an option. It doesn’t mean they will or won’t, but our job is to help get them to where they want to be.”

Barton added: “There’s no question in anyone’s mind that there are needs, but a lot of it is about timing and balance between taking care of these needs. Our board is very empathetic of taxpayers and they want to be cognizant of that. The biggest problem we face is inflation continues to go up, so you if you kick some of these needs down 5-10 years from now, these price tags could double.”

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