Stillwater school board may seek new operating levy

  • Article by: DAAREL BURNETTE II , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 2, 2011 - 11:03 PM

With a prospective deficit of as much as $10 million, "we have some difficult decisions to make," interim leader says.

The Stillwater school board next week will review referendum proposals that could help the district avoid some budget cuts next year.

Interim Superintendent Tom Nelson told the board in a report last month that the district will face a budget deficit of between $8 million and $10 million by the end of next school year -- more than 10 percent of the district's overall operating budget, he said.

"The reality is that more than 70 percent of our funds come from the state, and we can't wait for the state to fix its funding problems," Nelson said in a statement. "We have some difficult decisions to make, and we'll have to work with our communities as they have the final say."

Nelson encouraged board members to seek voter approval for replacing the current operating levy with one that would provide $1,567 per student -- the maximum allowed by the state. That would raise approximately $6 million a year and the district still would need to reduce expenditures by $2 million to $4 million.

The current voter-approved levy is $965 per student. The increase would cost the owner of a median-priced home valued at $300,000 another $256 per year for 10 years.

"Our students are currently at a disadvantage in that they are not receiving the same level of funding provided to students in other districts," Nelson said.

By increasing the levy, the district would be able to maintain class sizes, add art classes to elementary schools, and provide more intervention to ensure students are successful, he said.

Another option is to replace the current operating levy with an increase less than the maximum.

Nelson is recommending that the board also place a question on the ballot to increase technology funding by $1 million per year for 10 years to provide students with iPods, tablets and laptops. That proposal would cost the owner of a median-priced $300,000 home an additional $37 per year.

Another question would ask for $18.1 million to renovate science labs at Oak-Land Junior High and Stillwater Area High School. The money would also pay for a Science Technology Engineering and Math lab at each school. That would cost the owner of a $300,000 home another $32 to $52 per year.

"Our science labs are in dire need of updating," Nelson said. "They were the first thing I noticed when I came to Stillwater. The existing labs have issues with space, safety, inadequate equipment and outdated technology. Quality science instruction is essential in today's world. We need to do better for our kids."

Nelson, whose interim term ended last week, will be replaced by Corey Lunn, former Montgomery-Lonsdale school superintendent, who will take the helm of the 9,000-member district on Tuesday.

After Lunn became superintendent of Montgomery-Lonsdale's schools four years ago, the district passed two referendums. One helped renovate district buildings and paid for a new high school and an elementary and middle-school building. The other helped install new technology in district classrooms. Because of the referendums, the district received the state's second-largest allocation in Minnesota for projects last year.

Lunn, who was picked for the job in part because of his ability to get the referendums passed in Montgomery-Lonsdale, has said that he would be willing to push for a levy and bond in Stillwater in the coming months.

The Stillwater school board is expected to vote this month or next on whether to hold a fall referendum. The next discussion will take place at its board meeting at 7:15 p.m. July 14 at Stillwater City Hall.

The district also is asking the public to share its ideas online. Go to www.startribune.com/a515 to comment.

Daarel Burnette II• 651-735-1695 Twitter: @DaarelStrib

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