LOLO – A slim majority of voters in Lolo said it again Wednesday: They don’t want to pay $10.5 million for a new K-4 elementary school.
The second vote in five months against the bond issue left those in charge at Lolo Elementary School in somber moods Thursday.
“It’s been a very quiet bunch today,” school Superintendent Michael Magone said. “I know the teachers are very, very disappointed.”
Ballots in the all-mail vote went out Feb. 20 and were tallied Wednesday. The unofficial count was 948-919 against the bond, a margin of 29 votes.
That was down from a 43-vote margin in October, when there were 176 fewer votes cast. The margin of defeat was also narrower this time – 50.8 percent, down from 51.3.
None of which helps solve what Magone called “the same critical needs that aren’t going away” in a two-building school that holds more than 600 students, nearly 50 teachers and another 50 staff members.
“We’ll analyze those needs and try to figure out which are most immediate,” he said. “Usually that points to safety-related issues.”
First and foremost is the lower building, at street level along U.S. Highway 93. The 1905 structure is old and fire-prone.
“We’ll be looking at things like egress windows, because if that thing goes, it’ll go rapidly,” Magone said. A 1950s vintage boiler is “way past its longevity, but I don’t know that we’ll have funds to take care of that right away.”
The school board will decide what long-range steps to take, “whether that means coming back to the community with a potential building reserve levy at some point in time or re-planning a bond issue,” he said.
Magone said he’d talked to three of the five board trustees by Thursday afternoon, but it was too soon to get a sense of what they’re thinking.
“As you would guess, they’re pretty tired,” he said.
District officials held a series of community meetings after the bond failed the first time, seeking input and clarifying their issues. The result was a determination to try again and ask for the same $10.5 million to build a school for the five lower grades on a 20-acre parcel on Farm Lane, a mile southeast of the current school. It would include a gym, library and expanded food service.
The location was moved farther east and north than the original site, making it closer to Farm Lane to reduce construction costs and impacts on the neighborhood to the south of the school. While costs would have been cut somewhat, the district didn’t change the amount of the bond request due to inflationary costs associated with a year’s delay in building.
Nonetheless, tax impact on a $100,000 home would have dropped from an estimated $132 a year to $125 a year.
Opponents cited a number of concerns with the plan, including a raise in taxes, duplication of services at the widespread school buildings, safety issues with having schools on either side of the busy Highway 93, and a design-build method they said circumvented a competitive bidding process.
“I think the people of Lolo want one school. They don’t want two,” said Frank Miller of Hayloft Enterprises. “You put the whole school down at the new location and be done with it. And you build a conventional school, not a Taj Mahal. That we can’t afford it at this point.”
Miller publicly campaigned against the school district’s decision to hire a general contractor upfront.
“My feeling about it is the people want competitive bidding. That’s what lost the issue,” he said. “The superintendent gave the bid to Jackson Building without (opening) bids, which is unheard of.”
Magone defended the general contractor/construction manager approach, saying it’s been used “by school districts throughout Montana for a number of years,” including Hellgate Elementary and Frenchtown.
“In fact, this process opens it up probably more to local people being able to bid subcontracts than the more traditional approach to it,” the superintendent said.
But the biggest reason people vote against a bond, he knows, is its effect on their pocketbooks.
“Nobody likes to see their taxes go up,” Magone said. “But I think we have a pretty heavy population of people out here that, no matter what the reason is, don’t want a tax increase. I think that played a big role in it.”