by Mike Knaak
A vote on the Sartell-St. Stephen school district’s operating levy is being presented as a choice between raising new revenue or making additional cuts in the programs, services and building maintenance.
The operating levy, which will raise $1.7 million for 10 years, is on a Nov. 5 special- election ballot.
A year ago, district voters rejected a similar operating levy and the defeat resulted in program cuts, larger classes and increased fees, saving the district $1.3 million. In addition, the district tapped the reserve fund for about $400,000.
In a series of informational meetings, district leaders say the money is needed to meet the needs of a growing district.
They explain the operational levy is part of a multi-year strategic plan that includes funding the new high school, remodeling the old high school to serve as a middle school, converting the current middle school for grades three through five and reconfiguring the grades in the two elementary buildings starting next fall.
The increased funding will support operating a total of six buildings (including the District Service Center) when the old high school-to-middle school remodeling is complete next year. Operations include custodians, food service, heating/cooling and maintenance. The new high school is just short of 300,000 square feet. It costs about $3.50-$4 per square foot to operate a building. The added costs because of an additional building is between $1 million and $1.2 million annually.
To balance the budget this year, the district allowed class sizes to creep up. But if the levy fails this time, class sizes will need to increase again. The school board wants to maintain its class-size targets of 17 to 20 students in kindergarten, 20 to 25 students in grades one through three, 25 to 30 students in grades four through eight and 32 or fewer students in high school classes.
“Our classes are smaller than other districts and we think it’s a great way to educate kids,” Superintendent Jeff Schwiebert said at an information meeting last week.
Hiring five more teachers will allow the district to meet class size targets.
If approved, levy money will also support pre-K through grade 12 academic programming and extra-curricular programming. District leaders have focused on preparing students for a variety of post-high school options other than four-year college. Those options include technical and vocational education.
“Our mission is to give our kids many opportunities to have successes for the future,” Schwiebert said.
For example, Schwiebert said, there are facilities in the new high school to support industrial technology, nursing assistant and culinary arts programs but the district can’t afford teachers for them.
Levy money could also be used to support popular career-building extra-curricular programs such as robotics, Schwiebert said.
If voters choose not to support the levy, the district will need to cut expenses and look for other revenue sources.
Boosting class sizes beyond the current targets tops the list. This year the district cut two bus routes to save money. Further cutting transportation services would save more money. Now the district offers busing to all students who want it. The district could limit busing to students who live more than 2 miles from school, as required by the state, and save money.
Board members could make further cuts in activities and academics.
On the revenue side, the school board could change its open enrollment policy and open district buildings to more students and the revenue that comes with their enrollment.
“If we can’t pass a levy, we may have to look at open enrollment in another way,” Schwiebert said. “It’s not the best way to get additional revenue. The problem with open enrollment and the reason we haven’t done it was that the plan was to get more space for the kids we have rather than fill it with students from outside the district.”
The board could also look at additional fee increases. For example, high school activity fees increased 50 percent this year and raised about $100,000.
At the information meeting, residents asked about the so-called “Phase 2” of a building plan and when it will be proposed. Phase 2 projects include a stadium with lights at the new high school site, remodeling the two elementary buildings and replacing the heating system in the district’s original 1969 building, which will be named Riverview Intermediate School.
Schwiebert said there never has been a timeline for those projects.
“When community members elect school board members who think it’s the thing we should do” that’s when that plan would be put forward, Schwiebert said.
The district’s total budget is $39 million. About two-thirds goes for classroom instruction; 10 percent pays for maintenance, heating and utilities and 10-12 percent covers technology and staff development.
The Sartell-St. Stephen district ranks 317 out of 330 Minnesota school districts for per-pupil funding.
The district lacks significant commercial and industrial property to tax, so property taxes fall heavily on property owners with residential taxes making up 80 percent of revenue.
Still school leaders say residential property taxes compare favorably with surrounding communities. On a $250,000 homestead, the total tax bill in Sartell is $3,710.02 and in St. Stephen its $3,595.16. That’s higher than $3,402.99 in St. Cloud and $3,556.28 in St. Joseph but less than Sauk Rapids where the tax is $3,773.32 or Waite Park’s total tax of $3,945.79.
Because of a change in state funding approved by the Legislature, the property-tax impact of this levy will be less than it was a year ago. This chart shows the approximate tax increase. Taxpayers can figure their own tax impact with an online calculator at Sartell.k12.mn.us/2019levy.
Market value increase
School leaders point out that operating levies tax agricultural property differently than bonding. Farmers are taxed on their residence and one acre of land, not their entire acreage. The Legislature provided some property-tax relief for farmers with a tax credit on bonding. Farmers received a 40 percent tax credit for 2019 and that increases by 10 percent a year through 2023.
Election day is Tuesday, Nov. 5. Early voting and absentee ballots are available from 8 a.m.-4 p.m. through Monday, Nov. 4, at the District Service Center, 212 Third Ave. N.
Because this is not a general election, polling places have been combined at these locations:
Celebration Lutheran Church
1500 Pinecone Road N.
Sartell City Hall
125 Pinecone Road N.
St. Stephen City Hall
2 Sixth Ave. SE.
There are two more community information meetings scheduled before the vote:
7 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 23, at Sartell Middle School, 627 Third Ave. N.
9 a.m. Thursday, Oct. 24, Sartell Senior Connection, Sartell Community Center, 850 19th St. S.