Fall Lake taxpayers react to $54.1 million school referendum

by Nick Wognum
A proposed $54.1 million school referendum was pitched to Fall Lake residents Tuesday night.
Lake Superior School District superintendent Jay Belcastro and school board chair Tracy Tiboni, faced an uphill battle since there aren’t any Fall Lake students who attend school at LSSD.
The district has three campuses, an elementary school in downtown Two Harbors, a high school just north of Two Harbors off Hwy. 2 and a pre-K to 12 school in Silver Bay. All three would get upgrades, including the Two Harbors high school building that was completed in 2005.
Belcastro said it is “just an exceptional building” and that with the debt paid off in two years, the district can levy for an additional $45 million and keep taxes the same. If the referendum fails, Lake County taxpayers would see a reduction in their property taxes.
“This is not an increase in taxes, it’s a continuation,” said Belcastro.
The district hired ICS to put together a referendum project. He said the plan addresses safety in the schools where there is not a secure entrance to any of the three schools.
Belcastro said this was not addressed when the Two Harbors school was built in 2005. The other two school buildings would also be improved. The district would require a driver’s license to be swiped so the person’s info can be pulled from the BCA database.
At the Two Harbors school, a locker bay will be removed and a mental health area will be added. Some of the mechanical systems also need to be updated.
Total cost is just under $3 million.
Belcastro said the first levy question includes new bus garages as well.
Fall Lake deputy clerk Sheila Gruba challenged Belcastro from the start.
“Seriously this is not levy neutral, this is a lot,” said Gruba. “It’s levy neutral for people who have a home already, it’s not for someone who has a new home.”
Belcastro said the district is “in desperate need for repairs at the other sites.”
The Minnehaha building, which was built in the 1940s and was remodeled in the 1970s. “The district doesn’t feel it needs to come down and be a new facility,” said Belcastro. “And it’s in downtown Two Harbors and people want it to stay there.”
He said 19 listening sessions were held on the proposed project.
Minnehaha has had an increase in students. He said it needs a new secure entrance. The elementary offices would be relocated as well.
“The gym isn’t adequate for the facility, it is undersized,” said Belcastro. He said the staff said they can make the gym work but there are closets being used as classrooms. The project would add a “cafetorium” in an addition to the other improvements. The space currently used for the cafeteria would be converted to hold three classrooms.
Belcastro said the Minnehaha doesn’t have many windows so there is a lack of natural light. There are also tunnels that have moisture in them.
The district is also looking to vacate Fifth Avenue and putting in a new bus drop off and recreation area. Early childhood education would be all located at the Minnehaha building instead of split with the high school.
There are just under 400 students in grades kindergarten to fifth grade in the Minnehaha building.
“Why wasn’t there a listening session here? Answer that question,” asked Sheila Gruba.
“We wanted to hear the voices of people who know the school best,” said Belcastro.
“You’re the chairman of the board and you have not contacted us,” said Sheila Gruba to Tiboni.
“It would be nice to see you guys once in a while,” said chair Craig Seliskar.
Belcastro said there are 60 students who attend Ely schools.
“You’re just looking for our money,” said Sheila Gruba.
Belcastro said when his wife Kim worked as the superintendent in Ely and he taught in Proctor they lived in Hoyt Lakes and paid taxes to the Mesabi East school district.
“Our students get nothing from $5.5 million in the last referendum,” said Gruba. “I’ve been looking at this and looking at this and I don’t feel good about this.”
Belcastro returned to the presentation and moved to the William Kelley school in Silver Bay.
“Built with a lot of pride, built with mining dollars, built in the center in Silver Bay but it has not had any face lifts since it was built in the 1950s,” said Belcastro.
Removing asbestos from ceiling and floor tiles is one of the goals along with making the building handicap accessible. Belcastro said the district is looking to maximize opportunities in the community, including added a library.
He said locker rooms would be upgraded and outdated equipment in classrooms would be replaced. Class sections would be put together and the music room’s slanted floor would be fixed. The total cost is $19 million for the improvements.
At Silver Bay, which has just under 400 students, the high school office would be relocated to address safety concerns. In addition to safety, the project includes removing asbestos, ADA compliance and providing a 21st century learning experience.
With the addition of two bus garages the total is $45 million.
Jim Weinzierl asked about demolition costs and whether it would make more sense to build new.
Belcastro said those costs are built in and the district is not looking to build new buildings other than the addition at the Two Harbors elementary.
“We’ll be back asking you for support if not this year then next year and if not, the year after that. These improvements will not fix themselves,” said Belcastro.
John Pierce said while he supports education, he asked what would be the direct benefit for Fall Lake residents.
“No there really isn’t it,” said Belcastro.
“I support education but I do have an issue with you explaining this is not additional,” said Pierce. “I understand we’re in the same county and you can grab our money.”
Pierce said every time he drives by the Two Harbors High School he thinks how he invested in it.
“Why do you think we should be compelled to keep paying when our kids don’t benefit from it?” asked Pierce.
Belcastro said this happened him when Mesabi East proposed a referendum when he lived there.
“There’s nothing I can say to you that you’re going to benefit this way,” said Belcastro. “But we will have a better facility to educate our kids.”
Kerry Davis said the previous referendum was turned down several times before it passed. He said Fall Lake residents were told they would either pay through health and safety levies or by passing a referendum.
“We have to deal with water in the tunnels and we have to deal with asbestos and mold,” said Belcastro. “This is tough. You guys are a long way away from us, I get that. But the Lake Superior School District is setting up a strong district for the future.”
He said his wife went through three failed referendums in Wrenshall.
Davis asked if the district would be coming back soon for more money.
“Ely school district is having a problem where they bid it out and it was millions of dollars more,” said Davis.
Belcastro said he can’t guarantee the district won’t be back in the future.
“When we looked at this opportunity we looked at an operating levy for operation of the district. When we sat down as a district facility team, the difference between the facilities bond and an operating levy, the facilities get spread out among all the tax paying groups versus the industrial and the resident taxpayers for an operating levy. This project improves the efficiencies including LED lighting. It is our hope that we don’t have to come back to you asking you for more,” said Belcastro.
Gruba said Fall Lake pays 14.8 percent of the taxes.
Emily Seliskar said her taxes include a school she can’t participate in.
“I said come pick up my kid and they laughed at me, told me to open enroll and hung up,” said Emily Seliskar. “That’s the difference between here and Mesabi East.”
“We’ve been through the wringer and we didn’t get notified,” said Gruba. “I feel it’s totally underground again. And that’s how I feel.”
“The process has been over 12 months but our approval from the Department of Education didn’t come out until Sept. 3,” said Deboni.
“We know you are in a different spot and you are too,” said Belcastro. “I’m here to share with you the district’s perspective. We have aging facilities with an immediate need. We’re talking mechanics and safety at Two Harbors High School. We’re talking about facilities built in the 1940s and 1950s. We’ve got equipment in our kitchen at Kelly that is original and it’s still being used. We’ve done really well with your tax dollars.
“Would you pave my road? It’s the same question you’re asking us,” said supervisor Craig Seliskar.
“You have a vote, we’re here to share the information but you have a vote,” said Belcastro.
Heather Hohenstein said 60 students here have nothing to gain and that the Ely project was reduced from what was originally proposed.
Belcastro said in 2008 there was a tuition agreement with Ely at a rate of $6,500 per pupil where the LSSD paid the Ely school district. He said the arrangement stopped in 2008. The students who open enroll to the Ely district get all of the $6,500 instead of a part of it being kept by LSSD.
Gruba said Fall Lake pays $100,000 per student.
Belcastro said the $51.4 million project is broken up into two questions with $44.1 million for the base package and an additional $7.3 million for question two.
The second question deals with athletics. He said Two Harbors High School has dealt with a football stadium with natural grass and games have had to be moved off site because the field wasn’t playable.
He said the Silver Bay football stadium would be turfed, an all weather track would be installed, the baseball and softball fields would be rotated so balls don’t go out in the street; and a new concession stand would be built. Artificial turf would also be put in at THHS along with a new sound system and LED lighting.
Nancy McReady said she represented Fall Lake for the Lake County recreation board. She said monies went to Ely locally but said $36,200 in recreation funds a year went to the school district for athletics. She said there was even a project to put fitness equipment on a walking trail.
“That’s the kind of funds that Silver Bay and Two Harbors get,” said McReady. “You can stock pile the money and pay for these improvements. We are constantly fighting for a little share of the money we bring to Lake County.”
Lake County commissioner Pete Walsh said the money for recreation going to Fall Lake has never been cut.
“In county rec money you’ve never been cut in the last nine years,” said Walsh.
“I have a five year old, in three years are you going to send a Suburban for her?” Asked Seliskar.
“You call us,” said Belcastro. “We have families that live in rural areas and we have families that bring kids many miles to meet the Suburban. I’m not going to say we can but give me a call.”
Weinzierl asked about only having one school.
Belcastro said the two schools are 45 minutes apart.
“You could say that for Ely and Babbitt. Could you say that for Ely and Mesabi East? I think it’s just too far,” said Belcastro.
Weinzierl said the district should have looked at building schools to the north. Belcastro said it was before his time.
The vote is Nov. 2 and there are three ways to vote including early voting by mail, early in person voting through Nov. 1 and voting in person on Election Day.
“We’ll be open at Fall Lake on election day from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.” said Gruba.

The first question would invest $44.1 million to address the most critical needs of our school buildings, primarily at William Kelley School and Minnehaha Elementary School. Question two seeks $7.3 million to make upgrades to the district’s athletic facilities at William Kelley and Two Harbors High school. Question one must pass for question two to pass.

William Kelley Improvements
The music wing demolished and replaced with a two story wing with classrooms for the arts, natural sciences and family and consumer sciences. This wing will help prepare students for work or study after graduation by giving them expanded classrooms in a wide array of topics
Properly securing all entrances with updated security camera and access control systems
Asbestos removal throughout the building
Upgraded heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) systems
Redesigned class spaces for STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) education and student collaboration
Replaced boiler
Repaired exterior walls, doors, and old roofing sections
Replacement of decaying ceiling tile
Renovations to ensure all areas meet ADA requirements for those with disabilities to ensure all students, staff, and community members have full access to our facilities
New kitchen appliances and equipment
Renovated and expanded bus garage

Minnehaha Elementary Improvements
Renovation of all classrooms to improve technology, storage, lighting, and furniture to equip students for collaborative learning and provide teachers with improved technology and infrastructure
Properly securing all entrances with updated security cameras and access control systems
A 9,000 square foot addition including a cafeteria, kitchen, and two classrooms to alleviate congestion and expand learning spaces
Relocated main office and new receiving area for visitors
Replaced water heater
Asbestos removal
Replacement of aging windows, door, and old roofing sections
Renovations to meet ADA and fire code compliance to ensure all students, staff and community members have full access to our facilities.
Building envelope repairs to prevent water intrusion
A new outdoor playground

Two Harbors High School Improvements
Properly secured entrances and exits
Recalibrated ventilation control
Replacement of fluorescent lighting with LED fixtures
Renovated bus garage with new bus lift for repair work