The polling and the planning have been done, the school board votes taken, and now voters in four Washington County area school districts finally get their chance to decide whether to provide more money to their schools.
The Stillwater Area, South Washington County and Mahtomedi districts each are pursuing operating revenue increases in levy proposals that appear on Tuesday’s ballot.
For Our Schools Our Valley, the community group backing the Stillwater Area proposal, that’s meant a hectic final week of campaigning that has included mailings, door knocking and phoning — all part of a get-out-the-vote effort seen as crucial to the district’s high-stakes election.
The fourth school district, the White Bear Lake Area Schools, is seeking additional capital funding to make technology improvements and textbook and large musical instrument purchases.
Operating levy proposals are the bigger-ticket items. Once used to fund school “extras,” operating levies now are seen by school leaders as essential to everyday operations.
The Mahtomedi Public Schools, the county’s smallest with 3,305 students in 2012-13, is proposing to increase its operating levy to $1,199 per pupil. The move would boost school taxes by $181 annually on an average-valued $268,000 home, and is intended to bring stability to a high-performing school system that’s had to cut its budget in nine of the past 10 years.
The Stillwater Area district is seeking $1,536 per pupil in levy money, up from the $1,005 per pupil now being funded in an operating levy set to expire next year.
In 2011, district voters rejected each of three levy proposals on that November’s ballot. This year’s proposal consists of a single question, and reflects a more deliberative planning process, which included the development of a new strategic plan as well as community polling in February.
The $1,536 per pupil request is designed to prevent future shortfalls and to help enact the new “Bridge to Excellence” strategic plan. School safety is getting extra attention. Levy dollars would be used to expand antibullying and mental health initiatives, and to add secure entrances and “quick response systems” to all buildings, the district said. At Oak Park Elementary, for example, the district also plans to install more security cameras and to build an addition and renovate space to create a new, secure vestibule.
In pushing for a single question, the district risks seeing the current $1,005 per pupil — a total of $11 million annually — disappear in 2014-15. To ensure that residents know what’s at stake, the school board already has approved a list of cuts that would go in effect in 2014-15 if the $1,536 per pupil proposal fails. Included among the cuts are the elimination of contracts for private security at Stillwater Area High School and school resource officers at both of the district’s junior high schools.
If approved, the Stillwater Area measure would cost the owner of a median-valued $250,000 home an additional $167 per year in property taxes.
The South Washington County district also has made security improvements a key feature of its proposal. Unlike the Stillwater Area district, however, it has opted to put three questions before voters. Two involve operating revenues, with the first renewing current levies and the second providing another $337 per pupil. The third question would allow for the issuance of $8 million in bonds to buy land for future building needs.
If voters approve all three questions, the owner of a $250,000 home would pay an additional $72 per year for the district’s share of the property-tax bill. The $337 per pupil would generate $6.9 million more per year, of which $1.5 million would go to safety and security improvements. Secure entrances would be added to six elementary schools, and surveillance cameras upgraded at all buildings under the plan.
The operating-levy proposals would lift the amount being raised annually to $1,351 per pupil.