A referendum for a new school building was rejected by 60 percent of Rushford-Peterson (R-P) School District voters Wednesday, sending school officials back to the drawing board for a third time to discuss the future of the district's schools.
The referendum was for approval of the construction of a $15 million early education building to house all the students currently in the flood-damaged middle school located in Peterson. The ultimate goal of the multi-phase project, called the New School Initiative, was to locate all R-P students at one site. The entire project would have been financed with a 20-year bond, at an interest rate of 3.9 percent, which would have cost taxpayers nearly $23 million over the life of the bond.
The project is one that has been on the table in the R-P School District for six years, and after two failed attempts at getting state aide, Superintendent Chuck Ehler said he was hopeful the referendum would pass.
"There were a number of issues that came to the forefront during the open discussions about this proposal and there were people saying we have to get this done and consolidate within the district," Ehler said. "But, there was the realization that our Peterson citizens and residents value having a school [in Peterson]. So, I think that is going to need to figure into our new plan."
An unsettling realization then came from residents in the district when they discovered that the proposed project would have been paid for by increased taxes. Ehler said if the project were to move forward, "we were looking at a 48 percent increase in school taxes."
The steep tax increase was a price Rushford resident John Peterson was not willing to pay. "I just don't think it is fiscally responsible to push [the referendum] on everyone in the district," Peterson said. "This wouldn't have been the first push either because they wanted to come back and bond for the high school. But, being a property owner, I think a weight has been lifted off my shoulders now that [the referendum] didn't pass."
Peterson said property owners in the district were not prepared for their property taxes to double, and in some cases, triple. If the referendum passed, agricultural homesteads would have been the hardest hit, with commercial property owners and homeowners following closely behind.
Since the devastating floodwaters of 2007 ripped through the Rushford area, renovation and rebuilding plans for the middle school have been discussed. However, without a concrete plan to fund the multimillion dollar project, the R-P school district must head back to square one. Ehler said he won't give up working with legislative leaders to find an agreeable solution.
"We recognize that we have a need in our community and the [school] board understands that need. Now we just look for the best alternative," Ehler said. "If that solution is to stay in this building, then we stay in the building. We can do that. But, there must be an understanding that we want to do it right. We can make this happen."