Stillwater schools enjoy support, but levy passage will require work

Survey finds 56 percent would support an increase from $11 million to $15 million a year, or $1,494 per pupil.

Taxpayers believe they’re getting a good return on investment in Stillwater Area Public Schools, a community survey has shown.

But district leaders say that when it comes to selling voters on a new levy proposal, it is hard work and details that matter.

“People are not just going to hand the money over,” Carissa Keister, a district spokeswoman, said last week. “They want to know how money will be invested.”

The school board is expected to decide on April 11 how much it will seek from taxpayers and for how many years. Board members are leaning toward a proposal that would increase the current $11 million per year levy to about $15 million per year to pay for initiatives outlined in the district’s new strategic plan, Keister said.

Bill Morris, president of Decision Resources Ltd., which surveyed 400 area residents in late February, told board members this month that he believed “this year is a good year to put a reasonable levy request on the ballot.”

Stillwater has little choice: The $11 million per year levy is set to expire in June 2014.

According to the Decision Resources survey, 56 percent of people interviewed said that they supported or strongly supported a plan to raise about $15 million per year, or $1,494 per pupil. A proposal that would generate about $14.5 million per year, or $1,333 per pupil, was backed by 58 percent of those surveyed.

The district now raises about $996 per pupil with its current levy, which had the support of 71 percent of the people interviewed. But officials have said that the $11 million per year that it generates still leaves the district with an annual shortfall of $4 million to $6 million.

Morris recommended that the board pursue $1,494 per pupil over 10 years.

In 2011, voters rejected each of three levy proposals on the November ballot, including one that would have raised the current operating levy from $996 to $1,465 per pupil.

In his presentation to the board, Morris reminded members that Stillwater was a financially conservative district and that its leaders would need a clear plan for any new money.

The survey tested reactions to several components of the 10-point strategic plan and found that 72 percent of those interviewed supported bullying prevention and 70 percent backed efforts to assist students with mental health issues. Both are part of the district’s goal to “provide caring, healthy and safe learning environments.”

Other strategic-plan elements to garner at least 70 percent support included plans to upgrade curriculum and other materials and to give high school students greater flexibility to prepare for college and careers.

The proposal to gain the least amount of support, at 52 percent, was a plan to develop and offer online learning opportunities.

Overall, 80 percent of people agreed the community received a “good value” from its investment in its public schools.

To gauge where people stood on the possible levy increases, the survey also stated what the costs might be.

Under the $1,494-per-pupil plan, owners of a $200,000 home could expect to pay $149 more per year in levy costs than they do now, while owners of a $300,000 home would see a $223 per year increase.

If the levy were raised to $1,333 per pupil, tax bills for the $200,000 and $300,000 homes would increase by $99 and $149 per year, respectively.

Either proposal, if enacted, would be the first voter-approved local funding increase for schools since 2002, a fact that resonated with survey participants.

Sixty-seven percent said that knowing that local funding had been flat and that people now were arguing that it was time “to invest a little more” made them more likely to support a district levy proposal.

 

Anthony Lonetree • 651-925-5036

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