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Business donations help drop cost of one southeastern Minnesota school district’s referendum

March 25, 2019

OWATONNA — School leaders in Owatonna hope that an unprecedented show of support from the city’s largest businesses will drive voters to approve a $116 million bond referendum this spring and replace the district’s aging high school.

Last fall, a group tasked with figuring out whether the district should spend millions of dollars to fix up the nearly 100-year-old building or replace it recommended that the old building be torn down and replaced with a larger and more functional facility. The price tag: $138 million.

Within days, thanks to a combined $22 million in offers of cash and materials from three major employers in the southeast Minnesota city, the bill had dropped to $116 million — a number district officials say could drop even more as other businesses express interest in helping. Now, as the district prepares to bring the scaled-back referendum to a vote on May 14, its leaders are hopeful the community will be ready to seize on a rare opportunity.

“The first thing we see is a real effort on the part of the businesses to say we’re behind this effort and to say, ‘It’s an important piece of the community structure,’ and certainly that bodes well,” said Owatonna Public Schools Superintendent Jeffrey Elstad. “From a pure financial status, whenever you can take $22 million-plus off the bottom line that we owe on a bond referendum, we’re discount shopping.”

While other public school districts in Minnesota have received significant private contributions for their building projects or set up long-term partnerships, the support pledged in Owatonna is unusual.

One company, Federated Insurance, has said it will donate $20 million. Wenger Corp., a manufacturer of products for music and theater instruction (such as music stands and choral risers), along with athletic equipment storage products, has offered an estimated $2 million in products. Viracon, an architectural glass manufacturer that has worked on major projects such as Minneapolis’ U.S. Bank Stadium and skyscrapers around the world, will provide all of the glass in the new building, at the company’s cost.

The donation from Viracon is expected to further reduce the project cost, though the district won’t know the amount until it finishes design work.

Kelly Schuller, president of Viracon, said Owatonna needs a strong school system — including up-to-date school buildings — if companies like his are to attract employees and their families to the community. Plus, the district’s plans for the new building include technology and classroom space that will better prepare the graduates who could become part of Viracon’s workforce.

“It’s in the company’s interest that they get a great education and then grow up and want to raise their kids here,” Schuller said.

The district said the bulk of the project money would be spent on construction of the new building, though $9 million would be used for a multipurpose stadium, $2 million to buy land and $3 million for demolition of the old high school.

For the owner of a $175,000 home — the median property value in the district — the impact would be about $23 per month.

If the project is approved, the district would aim to have it completed in time for the 2022-23 school year.

Chris Simpson, CEO and president of Wenger Corp., said the offers of help are an indication of the community’s long-term viability.

“To me it’s a community that is saying: ‘We are looking forward to the future, and we believe in the future for Owatonna,’” he said.