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Warren-Alvarado-Oslo school leaders answer questions about upcoming $24.9 million referendum

On Wednesday, Sept. 28, at the second of three public meetings, WAO school leaders answered the questions of Oslo, Minnesota, community members about the school building bond referendum that will appear on ballots on Nov. 8.

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Mark Jones, a member of the WAO School Board, shows a rendering of the proposed school addition to a small audience in the Oslo Community Center during a meeting on Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2022.
Ingrid Harbo / Grand Forks Herald
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OSLO, Minn. – Faced with growing enrollment, the Warren-Alvarado-Oslo school district is asking voters for $24.9 million for a school addition and improvements.

At a meeting in Oslo on Wednesday, Sept. 28, WAO school leaders answered the questions of community members about the referendum, which will appear on ballots on Nov. 8.

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In the last five years, the district has gained approximately 100 students, and the district’s current facilities are struggling to keep up, especially in the elementary school. This year, the elementary school, which houses students in preschool through fifth grade, is at capacity. The district is waiting for a temporary classroom to be constructed for fifth-grade students.

“We are anticipating, hoping and praying that we can get that portable classroom installed before the snow flies,” said Kirk Thorstenson, the district's superintendent.

The $24.9 million would fund a 38,000-square-foot addition between the existing high school and elementary school in Warren, renovations in the high school and other capital improvements in the district. The addition would create four elementary classrooms, an elementary gymnasium, elementary music room, shared kitchen for the elementary and high schools and administrative offices for the district.

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Of the total amount, $6.9 million would go toward needed improvements in the schools, such as accessibility updates, heating, air conditioning and electrical infrastructure.

One attendee pointed out that historically, WAO schools were able to accommodate a similar number of students as the district has today, but without extra space. Ben Miska, WAO High School principal, explained that while the number of students is similar, the curriculum and types of spaces needed for classes have changed. Examples he gave were everyday kindergarten classes, rather than every other day, and special education classes for older students than in the past.

“Rooms are being occupied by different groups of people that weren’t being occupied by different groups of people in the '70s or '80s,” he said.

Morgan and Dennis Bukowski, of Alvarado, attended Wednesday evening’s meeting. They have four children, and their oldest, in fifth grade, has already felt the effects of limited space. Come November, they plan to support the referendum.

“We’re definitely for it because, obviously, we can see that our kids are going to need it,” said Morgan.

Passing the referendum would increase property taxes for 20 years, beginning in 2023. For owners of a residential property with an estimated market value of $100,000, the addition and renovation would cost an additional $117 per year. For owners of a commercial property worth $100,000, it would cost an additional $244 per year.

For agricultural properties, Minnesota’s School Building Bond Agricultural Credit lessens the tax impact for farmers in the region by 60% in 2022 and 70% in 2023 and beyond. With this tax credit, the state would pay an estimated 53% of the total cost of the addition and renovations.

If the referendum passes in November, the addition could potentially be open for classes during the 2025-26 school year, said Thorstenson. No matter the result of the vote, the district will have increasing needs for space if enrollment continues to grow, even in the next year.

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“We’re going to have to quickly cross that bridge, and to be 100% transparent, we have not started to have conversations about that,” said Thorstenson.

The district is holding a final public meeting on Nov. 1. That meeting will be at 7 p.m. in the WAO High School Auditorium.

Related Topics: EDUCATION
Ingrid Harbo joined the Grand Forks Herald in September 2021.

Harbo covers Grand Forks region news, and also writes about business in Grand Forks and the surrounding area.

Readers can reach Harbo at 701-780-1124 or iharbo@gfherald.com. Follow her on Twitter @ingridaharbo.
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