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Morris Area school board approves consolidation with Cyrus

MORRIS, Minn. -- The Morris Area School Board voted 4-0 on Monday in favor of moving forward with a consolidation with the Cyrus School District despite deep concerns about the financial implications the district could face with the Cyrus school building.

Board members Kurt Gartland, Dick Metzger, Jamie Solvie and Stan Wulf voted in favor of the plat, while board member Laura Carrington abstained. Board members Lory Lemke and Brent Fuhrman were not at Monday's meeting.

The board previously delayed a vote on the consolidation at their meeting in November when school board members expressed concern that the district could end up being responsible for the estimated $800,000 cost of demolishing the Cyrus school building.

The consolidation plat developed by consultants Northland Securities includes a request for special legislation that would allow the Cyrus School Board to sell bonds for both their statutory operating debt and the cost to decontaminate and demolish their school building, then levy Cyrus school district residents to repay the loan.

While there is precedence from past consolidations for the legislation to bond for debt, there is no precedence or guarantee the district would get the legislation that would allow them to pay for the building demolition.

In November, the board asked Superintendent Scott Monson to amend the plat to state that if the special legislation is not approved, Cyrus School District taxpayers will take on a larger percentage of the Morris Area School District's existing debt service payments as a way to reimburse the district for cost associated with Cyrus' debt and the school building.

The plat presented Monday includes two scenarios designed to address these contingencies:

• If the special legislation is approved, Cyrus School District taxpayers will assume 3.48 percent of Morris' debt service obligations on levies certified in 2013 through 2017.

• If the special legislation is not approved, Cyrus School District taxpayers will assume 13.6 percent of Morris' debt service obligations on levies certified in 2013 through 2017.

In both scenarios, Cyrus School District taxpayers will also assume 6.48 percent of the existing debt service obligations on levies certified in 2018 through 2026 and all taxpayers in the consolidated school district will be responsible for any new debt.

Still, the path towards consolidation is still filled with unknowns, and Morris Area School Board members made their frustration with the uncertainty known Monday.

"I have a lot of problems with the school building situation and I guess part of it is because of what happened in our own community," Carrington said, referencing the district's previous sale of an old school building to the city of Morris.

"It just seems odd to me, I guess, to be taking on another building situation like that when we had our own to deal with," Carrington continued. "I just find it extremely difficult to take on another building."

"Wouldn't it be better to be in the driver's seat of at least knowing, with the consolidation, that you're going to get the building rather than having it dumped on you?" countered Solvie.

Carrington also asked whether it was too late for other districts to change their mind to be involved with the consolidation.

"I heard that Hancock is running a $5.5 million bond issue to build a new building when we have a Cyrus building right down the road they could have used," Carrington said. "To me that makes no sense whatsoever. I am totally confused by the whole situation, I'll be honest. I do not understand that use of taxpayer money. I just think it stinks."

According to the Hancock Record, the Hancock School District is having a special election on Tuesday, Dec. 18 to vote on a $5.4 million bond issue to build new classrooms and remodel their existing school facilities.

Metzger said he felt the revised plat offered a fair amount of money for the Cyrus district taxpayers to pick up if the building does become the responsibility of the Morris Area district.

"I can't see that the legislature is not going to pass that," said Metzger. "I can't hinge on what-ifs, but that's why we did the percentages - to give us the best, worst-case scenario."

Gartland said that while he was initially not in support of the consolidation, with the revised plat he felt willing to take on the potential responsibility of the building despite some ongoing nervousness.

When she abstained, Carrington said she didn't feel comfortable voting because she hasn't been healthy enough to do as much research as she would like on the issue.

After voting to approve the plat, Metzger said the district just has to "hope for the best."

The consolidation and the consolidation plat is still far from finalized. The Cyrus School Board will need to approve the revised plat, which will then be sent to Minnesota Commissioner of Education, Brenda Cassellius for her review.

Cassellius has between 20 and 60 days to review the plat, after which time it will be returned to both school boards for final approval, likely sometime in January or February 2013. The districts will also need to see what happens in the legislature with the special legislation that is being requested.

Cyrus Superintendent Tom Knoll told the board that the Cyrus district is working with Hoffman Reality to try and sell the building. He also has spoken with Rep. Jay McNamar, Sen. Torrey Westrom, and Rep. Paul Anderson about the needed legislation.