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Final payment made on BEA High School

By Staff | Mar 17, 2013

Back in 1991 it was just a pipe dream.

Build a new Blue Earth Area High School.

But, in just three years it had become a reality, and in September of 1994 the brand new facility opened its doors to students.

Before that could happen, however, five school districts had to be convinced to come together with a plan, the State Legislature had to be convinced to pass a bonding bill for nearly $6 million and local voters had to be convinced to authorize a $3.019 million special local levy.

Now, 20 years later, that local bond is being paid off.

“It is like paying off the mortgage on your home,” BEA superintendent Evan Gough says. “The taxpayers of the BEA District now own the high school building free and clear.”

The final payment was made on Feb. 1. The last check covered a principal payment of $245,000 plus an interest amount of $5,665.63.

Mark it “Paid in Full.”

While the school opened in 1994 and will celebrate its 20-year anniversary in 2014, the bond payments started in 1993 in order to cover the construction costs.

That cost was just $9.042 million a bargain compared to the $25-plus million it takes to build a new school facility these days.

One reason the cost was kept low? The state-mandated 40 acres needed for the site were donated by Howard Essler, age 92.

The current site was one of several that were being considered. But getting the land for free made it an easier decision.

John Huisman, the high school principal at the time, remembers that there were many hurdles to get over before construction could begin.

“The major issue was to get an agreement with the districts themselves,” Huisman says. “That took a lot of meetings.”

Of course, each district had its own superintendent and school boards, which Huisman says created “a lot of input oh, we had plenty of input, it got pretty crazy.”

Don Helmstetter was the superintendent for Blue Earth and Winnebago, with Paul Ford before him in Winnebago. Chris Volz was in Delavan and was followed by Lowell Schwalbe and Lois Fisher was in Elmore, followed by Jim Redfield.

The Blue Earth Area (Blue Earth and Frost) and Winnebago boards learned that the state wanted at least one more district involved before they would commit to the nearly $6 million grant.

But, Elmore and Delavan were not sure they wanted to make that commitment.

Eventually the individual boards formed a Joint Powers Board and things took off from there.

Huisman recalls that there was one person who made the state grant possible. You could call him the $6 million man.

“(State representative) Henry Kalis of Walters made it happen,” Huisman says. “He had the Speaker of the House appoint him to the conference committee which would determine the fate of the bonding bill.”

With Kalis’s efforts, the $5.881 million for a new high school in Blue Earth was passed.

“But, both the donation of the land and the state grant were contingent on a local referendum being passed,” Huisman says. “There was a Citizens Committee for a New High School formed and they did a lot of work.”

One thing they did was to get out the word that the referendum would add only $22 to the taxes of a $50,000 home, or $57 to one of $100,000 value.

A homesteaded agricultural property of 320 acres would increase $236 in taxes (figuring farmland at the time at $1,500 an acre.)

The word was also put out that trying to fix up the old buildings and not build new would cost $4.3 to $5 million more than the $3 million it would cost local residents for a brand new school.

The vote was taken Sept. 15, 1992. It passed 2,826 to 1,704. The measure failed in Winnebago, Elmore and Delavan, but had enough votes in Blue Earth, Frost and some townships to pass.

On Feb. 16, 1993, voters in the Blue Earth Area and Winnebago districts again went to the polls and voted to combine. The vote was 647 to 96.

Huisman says the planning committee took many trips to visit every new school in the state, to glean ideas.

“Our plan for having an innovative media center surrounded by classrooms came from a middle school in Owatonna,” Huisman recalls.

Bids for the new high school were let on April 16, 1993 and were $280,000 lower than expected. That allowed the board to add air conditioning to the project.

The groundbreaking ceremony was moved from the actual site to behind the Dairy Queen, due to rainy weather.

That rainy season a once in 100 years event continued through the summer of 1993, causing construction to fall behind schedule. However, the construction manager promised the school would be finished before school would begin in September of 1994.

And it was.

An open house and public ceremony was held on Aug. 28. Students began classes on Sept. 1.

“The school was built to accommodate 600 kids,” Huisman recalls. “We opened that school year with 570 in the four grades.”

Unfortunately, the donor of the land for the new facility, Howard Essler, never saw the completed new high school built on his property.

He died on Sept. 16, 1993, about a year before it was completed.