School levy passes with clearer message

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by Mike Knaak

Clear communication about the plan and more robust community support apparently turned around last year’s rejection of a school district operating levy into an approval in a Nov. 5 special election.

Sartell-St. Stephen school district’s voters approved an operating levy that will raise $1.77 million for 10 years.

There were 3,047 yes votes and 2,276 no votes – a 57 percent approval.

A similar measure failed a year ago with 60 percent of voters rejecting the levy.

Turnout this year was lower then last year’s vote during the general election. In 2018, 8,154 votes were cast compared with this year’s tally of 5,323. In 2016, when district voters approved a bond for a new high school, 4,315 votes were cast.

“After the referendum failed, the first thing we did was we held community sessions,” board chair Jason Nies said. “We heard loud(ly) and clear(ly) that our message wasn’t clear enough about why we needed the money. This time around we made a better effort at holding community sessions and the Vote Yes committee made a huge difference. It was a good grassroots effort.

“We tried to be even more transparent,” Nies said. “We made sure everyone had the information to go out and vote.”

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 approved levy 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 expenses 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 cost because of an additional building is between $1 million and $1.2 million annually.

The levy money will also support pre-K through grade 12 academic programming and extra-curricular programming as well as helping the district hit its class-size targets.

The approved levy will add $74.30 for each $100,000 of a property’s taxable market value. For example, the owners of a $250,000 home will pay an additional $185.75 in property taxes. Operating levies do not tax agricultural land.

Sartell-St. Stephen was one of 44 Minnesota school districts seeking operating levies on Nov. 5. All but seven of them passed, according to the Minnesota School Boards Association.

In 37 districts, voters were asked to approve bonds to pay for new schools or improvements to existing buildings. Voters approved 24 of those measures, including Sauk Rapids-Rice district voters. A $37.13-million bond to build a new Pleasantview Elementary School passed 3,054 yes to 1,222 no votes.

The new tax money will be available for the next school year.

“We’re going to be methodical about where to put the dollars,” Superintendent Jeff Schwiebert said.

“We thank the voters for coming through with the results,” Schwiebert said. “We are going to be able to do the kind of programs the district wanted us to do all along. We’re very pleased with patrons supporting us in this. We pledge to do as good as possible.”

Author: Mike Knaak

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