by Dave DeMars
The votes are in and tabulated and the leaders of the Sartell-St. Stephen School District are asking themselves what went awry with the attempt to pass an operations levy referendum in the district. The proposed levy, titled Levy for Learning, was defeated by more than 1,600 votes.
“Well, I’m not sure,” said Superintendent Jeff Schwiebert in a recent phone interview. “That’s one of the reasons the board and I have talked and we are going to go out and do some listening sessions and get a good understanding of what the patrons would like us to do differently.”
With 60 percent of the electorate opposed to the proposed referendum, Schwiebert and the board members are more than a little discomfited by the rejection.
“We had a large turnout which is great,” said Schwiebert, “but that also means we need to do a better job of informing everyone.”
The board made efforts to inform the public with Schwiebert and board members giving information briefings to the public, publishing explanatory material in the Newsleader and the Times, and online at the district website. But apparently it was not enough.
The board was asking for an additional $82.62 per $100,000 of assessed valuation. The present levy is $37.72 per $100,000. The new levy, which would have replaced the present levy, would have added the $82.62 to the present levy for a total of $120.34 per $100,000. If the rejection of the referendum is any indication of voter thinking, that tax increase was simply too much to swallow.
At this point, Schwiebert said no decision has been made about trying to make a run at passing a different levy. “We need to go out and listen and find out what the people want, and we need to make sure we understand what is going on,” Schwiebert said again.
One thing Schwiebert was confident of was the opening of the new high school.
“We will open the new school – we said that all along that we would open that, but the cost to open that will have to come out of the budget that we currently have,” Schwiebert said. “In order to make our budget balance we are going to have to do some reductions.”
But Schwiebert was unwilling to name the kinds and amounts of reductions that might have to be made.
“It’s way too early,” he said. “We have to go out and listen to what our patrons said, and then listen to our own people internally. Then we can decide where we want to make the most appropriate reductions in our budget.”
Schwiebert cautioned there is no need to rush, adding the board needs to be thoughtful about the whole issue.
“About 85 percent of our costs are people who are in the midst of a year, and it’s a little tough to make people reductions in the middle of the year,” Schwiebert said.
Schwiebert added there is a lot of rumor and gossip, but nothing has been decided. Still, the $1.7-million increase (about four percent of the present $38 million dollar budget) the referendum would have provided will need to be made up somewhere, he added.