by Mike Knaak
Costs and communication led to the defeat of the Sartell-St. Stephen school district’s operating levy. That’s what about two dozen people gathered for the first of four community meetings told school leaders Dec. 6.
Sartell-St. Stephen voters overwhelmingly rejected the levy in the Nov. 6 election. There were 3,230 yes votes and 4,924 no votes. The levy would have raised $1.7 million to fund operations that were part of the district’s master plan.
In opening the meeting at the Blackberry Ridge clubhouse, Superintendent Jeff Schwiebert said school leaders were there to hear “what we did wrong, what we did right and what to do next.” He was joined by school board members Jason Nies, Jeremy Snoberger and newly elected board member Amanda Byrd.
The proposed levy would have raised money to operate the district’s buildings and grounds, which will include about 300,000 square feet of additional space when the new high school opens.
When voters approved bonding for the high school in May 2016, the district said they’d be asking for additional money to operate the school and fund other building projects to accommodate a growing student population.
The district introduced the operating request with the slogan Operate, Education and Innovate.
Some of the people attending the session told school leaders that while they supported the “operate” part of the plan, they did not expect to be asked to raise taxes for the “educate and innovate” costs.
Snoberger said of the total, about $300,000 would pay for an “education” component, which includes maintaining small class sizes and flexible learning opportunities. The innovate portion would have provided about $200,000 for innovations including improved technology and teaching life skills such as problem-solving and collaboration.
Those costs, beyond operations, amounted to a bait and switch compared with what was anticipated three years ago, some residents said.
The cost of residents’ total tax bill also was a factor, several people said. School district taxes are just one portion of the bill, which also includes property tax for the city, county and special taxing districts. Residents said they were concerned about property taxes in the years ahead as they see projects such as Sartell’s Community Center and the Public Safety Facility, as well as future school district needs.
If the district decides to go back to voters with another plan, participants urged an improved communication plan that included more details about how the money would be spent and why choices were made. The district did conduct community meetings but residents suggested the district could do a better job of telling the story of what’s happening in the schools and reaching out to the 65 percent of households who don’t have children in school.
For the most recent vote, there was no “Yes” committee formed to campaign for the project. School officials can’t advocate for a yes vote, but citizens can campaign and several people suggested the need to organize a group if the operating levy comes up for another vote.
There were many questions about what comes next, and school officials said they will come up with a plan after the community meetings wrap up.
“We’re going to do everything we can not to have direct impact on kids,” Schwiebert said. “We’re going to have to make some tough choices. We have to decide if we are going back out with a levy vote again.”
The district will begin operating the high school next fall so those expenses will need to be covered because another vote would not take place until next fall. The district plans to ask any teachers who are contemplating retirement to speak up now instead of waiting until the end of the school year to announce they are leaving. That way, officials can factor in the presumed lower salary of replacement teachers.
“We are not forcing people out,” Snoberger said.
On Dec. 6, the state of Minnesota announced a projected $1.5 billion budget surplus. Schwiebert suggested people write to legislators urging an increase in state funding for schools.
The group also discussed the vote details of the Nov. 6 election compared with the balloting that approved the building bond. In the May 2016 special election, voter turnout was 41 percent with 53 percent of those voters approving the bond. This time, with about 70 percent turnout, only 40 percent of voters backed the operating levy. In other words, a smaller pool of voters approved an $89.5 million high school plus upgrades at other schools for a total bond of $105.8 million.
People asked a variety of questions about school operations in general that may help guide the district’s future communications. Included in the questions:
• How did the district calculate the additional costs of operating the new spaces? The district calculated the cost of operating its current space at $4 per square foot and then multiplied that by the additional 300,000 square feet to come up with $1.2 million.
• Why didn’t the district ask for voters to approve the operating levy when the bond was approved three years ago? The district didn’t need the operating money until the school was built so officials didn’t want to ask for the money until it was actually needed.
• Could money saved on the building be used for operations? No, because bonding money has to be used to build not run the district.
• When is the teachers’ contract up? The contract ends in 2019.
• Why was it necessary to add another building? All the current buildings are at maximum capacity. With the new high school, current buildings will be modified and grades housed at each building will be changed to accommodate growth.
• What is current average class size? The targets are 28 students in the high school, 20 or fewer students in kindergarten, 20-25 students through third grade and 25-30 students in fourth through eighth grade.
• How many students entered the district this year? 120.
• How do Sartell’s property taxes compare with surrounding communities? For a $250,000 home, combined taxes are the highest in Waite Park, second highest for Sartell and about $100 more than St. Cloud, which is third highest. Schwiebert pointed out that the district does not have a large amount of commercial or industrial property to tax and he urged voters to contact legislators to rebalance the funding formula.
Residents will have one more chance in the coming week to meet with district leaders. The meeting is 6:30-7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 18, at Sartell Community Center, 850 19th St. S.