Elk River looks for more school aid

  • Article by: NORMAN DRAPER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 22, 2011 - 1:44 PM

A pair of bills would help the district with debt from major construction prompted by an enrollment boom.

Elk River schools officials are leaving no stone unturned in their efforts to pry some more funding out of the Legislature.

Two bills have been introduced this session that would help offset the heavy amount of debt the district took on for major school construction and renovation that has occurred since 2001.

That work was the result of an enrollment boom that added 3,000 students to the district over a five-year span. The state funds being sought wouldn't help pay off the debt, per se. Instead, they would boost the district's operating funds -- used to pay for classroom expenses -- and capital funds, used for such expenses as technology upgrades and maintenance costs.

"Roughly 54 percent of our property tax revenues are going in to retiring our debt rather than going into the classroom to pay for teachers and supplies," said district superintendent Mark Bezek. "Our people are paying their fair share of taxes, but it's going to retire building debt."

Bezek said the average Twin Cities metro district allocates slightly more than 30 percent of its tax revenues to paying off building debt.

Turning again to voters for more tax money isn't a good option for Elk River, Bezek said.

"Because of all the building we've gone through, we're in a situation with our voters where we can't keep going back to them for operating dollars because of the economy, and we know we're not going to get a lot of state aid," said Kristine Niznik, co-chair of the Elk River Schools Legislative Action Team.

One of the bills, which has been introduced on behalf of Elk River and several other districts, would award Elk River more than $7 million a year until the building bonds are paid. That would lower the percentage of the district's property tax revenues that go to debt repayment, bringing it to the metro average. Other districts that would benefit from that bill include Farmington, St. Michael-Albertville, Eastern Carver County, and Centennial, district officials said. Bezek acknowledged that the bill's chances to become law are probably slim.

Another bill, relating solely to Elk River, would allow the district to transfer about $2.5 million from its debt reduction fund to its general fund. Bezek said that bill has a better chance of passing because it involves a shift of existing money, not new money. Also, such fund transfers have often been requested by districts and been approved.

The $2.5 million is an amount the district has to levy as a reserve to cover unforeseen building costs.

According to Bezek, the district chalked up $200 million in debt to pay for its building projects. Those include four new schools and extensive renovation to Elk River High School.

The new schools are Rogers High, Westwood Elementary in Zimmerman; Twin Lakes Elementary in Elk River; and Hassan Elementary in Rogers. There were also renovations to Rogers Middle, Zimmerman Middle/High and VandenBerge Middle in Elk River; Lincoln Elementary in Elk River; Rogers Elementary and Westwood Elementary in Zimmerman; and Zimmerman Elementary. Funding for all those improvements came from two large bond issues passed in 2000 and 2004. The larger of those, passed in 2000, was for $109 million.

Though the district's growth rate has slowed, enrollment still increases by 150 to 200 students a year, Bezek said. That brings in more money for schools since state funding is tied to the number of students in a district.

Bezek said the district will not have to make any budget cuts for next year. That's because of $6 million in cuts to the budget made two years ago, he said. Still, officials worry that rising expenses to educate special education students, frozen state funding, and the district's high debt load will make it tough to get adequate school funding for years to come.

"This is one way to address the issues of [funding] reductions," Niznik said. "It's basically just to maintain the programming we already have, to keep our teachers in the buildings, and not increase our class sizes."

Norman Draper • 612-673-4547

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