Taxpayers press for referendum re-do in bid to halt school construction

Rushford-Peterson Schools bond referendum passed in 2014, construction started in 2015, but a citizens group wants to turn back the clock in 2016 on the controversial $38 million project in the works.

“We’re hoping we can put a stop to it. It will cost a lot of money given what’s happened, but not nearly as much, as if this goes for 20 years,” said Maynard Thompson, a retired R-P middle school principal who opposes the new school. “They’re pushing construction like crazy, to try and get it so far along, that it can’t be stopped.”

After R-P school board members rejected a special election petition signed by 140 residents who support a referendum revote, R-P Responsible Citizens, a taxpayer activists group, asked a Fillmore County court to intervene. The case will be heard on May 5.

The group alleges the district misrepresented several aspects of the project to voters, necessitating a re-do. School administrators refute the allegations.

“At this point with what’s going on, nothing will surprise me. They are very determined to stop the construction,” said R-P Schools superintendent Chuck Ehler. “…There hasn’t been anything to indicate they have a basis for claiming there’s fraud.”

It’s the latest example of a contested school referendum that continues to bitterly divide a Minnesota community, long after the campaign. A police officer now stands outside R-P school board meetings.

“To walk into a school board meeting, and there’s a police officer in the hall, and I hear that’s been going on since September,” former R-P school board member Beth Stanford said at the January meeting. “The student representative has been afraid to come to these meetings. I think that’s very concerning.”

R-P Responsible Citizens members took the precautionary step of incorporating to protect their farms and assets against potential legal reprisals for what’s generally viewed as a longshot effort.

“This community is split right down the middle,” said Jon Peterson, a farmer who says he’s paying $4,000 addidtional property taxes due to the school. “We’ve gotten a lot of people who’ve offered to give money to our group. ‘Just don’t put my name on anything’, you know, is what they said.”

Opponents argue state law requires the school district to hold a special election because more than five percent of total voters in the last general election signed their petition. But school attorneys contend the district lacks legal authority to hold a re-vote.

“We’ve already voted on it once, and to spend millions and millions of dollars on damages and end up with nothing?” chair John Linder said at the R-P school board’s January meeting. “We’d still have a big hole in the ground, and still be right back where we started.”

The controversy originates in a devastating 2007 flood, when the Rushford school incurred damages of about $740,000, according to FEMA. But the backlash has been further fueled by a legislative deal that materialized after voters rejected a $15 million elementary school referendum in 2012.

“I have a very low opinion of local government. There’s no accountability,” Peterson said.

Special legislation passed in 2014 paved the way for the state to subsidize about half of construction costs with natural disaster funds, contingent on a successful referendum.

The deal also hinged on the school meeting the threshold of $500,000 in flood damage, a claim critics have questioned since the start. They note the school served as a base for flood relief efforts, opened on schedule in fall 2007 and students still attend classes there.

The distrust extends to the state’s long term financial commitment, despite assurances from the Minnesota Department of Education.

“It’s a challenge and the focus for us is to just take one day at a time, and deal with one issue at a time, and try to answer questions and concerns as they arise,” superintendent Ehler said.

On top of that, a landowner has filed a separate lawsuit against the district for allegedly building on the easement to his 52 acre property.

“The biggest reason I’m doing this is right and wrong. It’s just plain wrong what they’re doing,” said Glen Palecek, who needs access to a planned 40 house development. “You always hear about government on a national level and a state level, but on a local level, I’ve never seen anything like it.”

R-P district officials say nothing short of a court order will stop them.

“The fact that we’re pouring concrete with a drive-over curb, and we’re putting up a fire lane road, actually improves his access easement, doesn’t restrict it,” Ehler said.