Richfield schools warn of layoffs if levy request fails

  • Article by: NICK WOLTMAN , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 30, 2012 - 4:07 PM

Some staff are likely to lose their jobs even if the request passes in the referendum.

The Richfield School District faces up to $3.7 million in budget cuts if a levy request on next Tuesday's ballot is rejected by voters, Superintendent Robert Slotterback says.

The district is asking voters to extend an existing property tax levy, set to expire after the 2012-13 school year, for another 10 years and to approve an increase in the district's overall levy authority by $60 per student.

If approved, the first question will not change property tax rates in the district, but question two would raise the average homeowner's property taxes by about $16 annually, or $1.33 per month.

Even if the levy passes in the referendum, some cuts are inevitable, Slotterback says. Unless the state significantly increases its funding for public schools, he estimates that the district will have to trim about $1.2 million from its budget. Unfortunately, he says, this means some people will lose their jobs.

"I don't want to sugar-coat this," Slotterback said. "Even if the referendum passes, we're still going to have layoffs. We're just not going to have as many layoffs."

Like the majority of Minnesota's 337 public school districts, Richfield increasingly relies on property tax levies to cover their operating costs, which have outpaced state funding.

Even with the help of local taxpayers, Slotterback says Richfield has been operating on a tight budget in recent years. However, he adds that the district has done all it can to minimize the impact of its budget woes on its teaching staff.

"We've turned the heat down as far as we can, we've stretched the bus routes as far as we can go, we've limited our paper use. But all of that makes up only about 18 percent of our budget," Slotterback said. "We've reduced that 18 percent as much as we possibly can, and consequently what's left are people."

Jodi Olson, president of the Richfield STEM School's parent-teacher organization, says losing teachers is a scary prospect for the district's parents, many of whom feel class sizes are already too big.

"For us, it's a no-brainer," Olson said. "I'm going to vote yes."

Slotterback says the decision isn't quite as easy for others. He says he receives phone calls and e-mails from voters who believe the school district should do more to stretch the funds it has, rather than asking taxpayers for more -- a sentiment he says is understandable considering the economy.

This attitude likely contributed to the defeat of a more ambitious levy increase last November, he said.

The school board's decision to ask for a more modest increase this time around was influenced by last year's defeat, but Slotterback says passage of this year's referendum is far from certain, especially when it shares the ballot with a presidential election.

Since 1991, only about 52 percent of public school operating levy referendums have passed in the state during presidential election years, according to the Minnesota Department of Education. School districts have been much more successful in getting referendums approved in off-year elections, when federal offices do not appear on the ballot and voter turnout is lower.

Christine Maleck -- a member of Citizens for a Quality Community, an organization that advocates on behalf of the Richfield School District for passage of referendums -- worries that two years of failed referendums will impact enrollment.

"Once you become known as a district that can't pass a referendum, people are going to start sending their kids to other districts," she said. Parents can open-enroll their children in other districts.

Slotterback shares Maleck's concern over losing students to other districts. The fewer students they enroll, the less money they get from the state.

"School has become a very, very competitive business," Slotterback says. "Parents can opt to go to any district they like. We're losing, in essence, our market share."

Nick Woltman is a Twin Cities freelance writer.

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