For the Lakeville School District, desperate times call for a new approach to interacting with the community.
With the district still adjusting to $3.5 million in cuts made this spring and facing a $5 million to $7 million shortfall in 2014-15, Superintendent Lisa Snyder is making the rounds this month and next, holding several public "State of the Schools" forums and meeting with every school's staff and many PTO groups.
Her message is clear: Despite having strong schools in the past, the district has reached a critical point in terms of cuts. If a levy isn't passed in the fall, "We're going to be in dire straits here in the district," she said.
Snyder's public approach is new for Lakeville, said Jason Molesky, the district's director of program evaluation.
"This is the first time we've taken this traveling road show sort of approach. We're trying to engage as many individuals and groups as possible," Molesky said.
The goal of the sessions is to "tell our story," Molesky said, and that includes educating the public about the district's successes, changing demographics and financial situation.
"There's a lot of misinformation about our school district. I think it's really important that we continue to communicate about what our vision is and what we're hoping to accomplish," Snyder said.
One challenge is to help people understand why the district needs more money when students' test scores continue to be strong. Snyder explained that the effects of large classes and music and art cuts haven't fully been felt yet.
In addition, many people falsely believe that "a district of this size could survive on just what the state provides." They don't realize that the state funding formula hasn't kept up with inflation, she said, or that different districts get more or less based on demographics and other factors.
Three requests for new levy money have been defeated by Lakeville voters in the past decade.
About 30 people attended the first of two "State of the Schools" presentations last Monday. Molesky and Snyder each gave a presentation, followed by a question-and-answer session.
A second event will be held June 3, with a special session for residents of the Elko New Market area on May 21. Snyder will also meet with any interested community or business group.
In her presentation, Snyder made the case that a strong school system benefits everyone, "whether it's through property values, increased business or knowing that we are an aging population that needs our young people to be more successful than ever," she said.
'At a tipping point'
Molesky said the district has cut more than $30 million and 20 percent of its teachers over the past seven years. Currently, the district has the highest class sizes in the metro area, Molesky added, with the lowest spending among the 20 largest metro districts.
"We really feel we're at a tipping point," Snyder said. "At some point we aren't going to be able to compete with the Minnetonka, Edina and Wayzata academics as we've done in the past."
Brian Mast attended the event and has three children in the district. He said he supports a levy and thought the night went well, though he thought Snyder was forced to be on the defensive when attendees asked questions, some of which were off-topic.
"I like the idea of this. I think we could've focused more on the big picture of things," Mast said. "I think it all comes down to the money, and there could've been more emphasis on that."
Will a levy pass?
Snyder said a common question she hears is what the district will bring back if a levy is successful in the fall. That depends on how much of a tax increase voters approve — if they approve anything, she said.
The district completed a community engagement survey last month, she said. It indicated that residents would approve a $300 increase in per pupil funding, adding $159 in property tax for owners of Lakeville's median-priced home.
"The problem is, that just doesn't balance our budget," she said. "We'd need $500 per pupil to do that."
When asked whether they'd approve the larger amount, residents were split down the middle, she said.
Jessica Hillis, PTO co-president at Christina Huddleston Elementary, has two children in the district. Although she strongly supports a levy, she said she knows other parents who don't. She's heard the sentiment that the district has too much administrative overhead and doesn't spend wisely.
If a levy doesn't pass, "Lakeville is just going to be sad and it's going to be very difficult," Hillis said. "So many of us feel it's bare bones as it is."