Trailer Trash

DOWN IN LAKEVILLE, there are those who say prosperity is killing them. Take the question of public schools. "We're getting at least 600 new students a year," says Ken Nichols, secondary education director of District 194, "and it doesn't appear to be slowing down." According to Nichols, the district will graduate 396 seniors this year--compared to a first-grade class almost twice as big at 706 students.

The continuing sprawl of the Twin Cities has strained a lot of resources in once-small towns on the fringes of the metro area; not least among them are the finances and facilities of outlying schools districts. In the past 10 years, school administrators in these growing "ex-urbs" have had to cram new students into existing classroom space and hope that voters would open their wallets later on. The voters, in turn, have watched property taxes rise steadily and are suspicious of any effort to tap them for more money, regardless of the cause. Backed into a corner, some canny school administrators have found a way to get additional space without having to seek voter approval: They add portable classrooms onto current buildings. But everyone admits that this is only forestalling a larger reckoning.

Twenty years ago, Lakeville was farmland. Now it's a thriving municipality. Since 1988, Lakeville taxpayers have ponied up for a new high school stadium, four elementary schools, and the expansion of a junior high. In the fall of 1996, when it was evident that student numbers would continue to climb, the Lakeville school board turned again to the voters for relief. This time they conducted a referendum to build a new school and secure a levy for increased operating costs. And the voters said "no," leaving the district in the lurch.

According to a 1996 study compiled by the Metropolitan Council, the two fastest growing school districts in the state are Lakeville and Chaska. By 1998, they are projected to grow by another 28 and 23 percent respectively. Chaska, says school district business manager Dave Peterson, was able to avoid desperate measures because in 1993 voters agreed to pay $46.5 million in extra property taxes to remodel several schools and build new ones. But a second referendum in 1995 failed, forcing the district to close one school and "squeeze the kids into eight buildings."

Lakeville administrators, however, are unwilling to crowd students further. So this summer, two or three trailers will be added onto Kenwood Trails Junior High. The portable classrooms will be attached to the building by a ramp, thus making them handicapped-accessible and avoiding the construction of new water/sewer lines.

Portables, unlike actual buildings, don't require special approval from the voters, making them very attractive to administrators. "Rosemount has whole farms of trailers," says Peterson. "Other counties, like Washington, have had to rely on them recently." It matters little that, as Nichols acknowledges, Lakeville's trailers will cost almost $30,000 each per year. "It's almost an equal dollar [for a building versus a trailer]," Nichols says, "and it only buys a little time."

But a little time may be all that's needed to stem the tide of students, according to local education analyst Dennis Schapiro. "Here's an area that's being developed rapidly, and it's changing the nature of small-town life. Perhaps they are sending a clear message by not building a school. They are saying, in effect, 'We don't want any more development, but we'll take care of the kids we got.'" Nichols concedes that it's not an uncommon sentiment. "There are some that would like to close the doors on Highway 35," he says.

Barring border patrols, residents of Lakeville and other districts across the metro are looking to the Legislature for relief. Mark Mallander of the Association of Metropolitan School Districts, a lobbying organization for 24 suburban districts, says his group is drafting legislation that will retool how public education is financed, placing less emphasis on property taxes and referenda.

Joining the cry for reform is gubernatorial hopeful Skip Humphrey, who last Thursday held a press conference to present a 16-page proposal pledging to make school finances less reliant on property taxes--a policy move for which business groups, most publicly the Minnesota Business Partnership, have lobbied for years. Until that happens, says Nichols, Lakeville School Board members will continue to devise ad hoc means of dealing with their surplus students.

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