It’s an off-year election, but school districts around Minnesota have some big questions for voters to consider when they head to their polling places on Nov. 5.
More than 30 districts are looking for voter approval to take on debt for major building and remodeling projects. That includes White Bear Lake Area Schools, which is seeking to pass what would be the largest school bond in state history, at $326 million. Elsewhere, more than 40 districts, some of them facing major growth — or decline — in enrollment are hoping voters will renew or increase the size of their local operating levies.
With just two weeks to go until Election Day, district officials and referendum supporters are making the rounds, holding public meetings and dropping in on community groups to make their case. Many are telling voters that they’re feeling strained by stagnant state funding; even though the Legislature this year approved a 2% increase to the state’s school funding formula, district leaders say it wasn’t enough. Most say they are challenged by growing special-education costs that are only partially funded by the state and federal government, and trying to keep up with maintenance and upgrades on aging buildings — and make them more secure.
Scott Croonquist, executive director of the Association of Metropolitan School Districts, said support for local school funding varies widely across communities. But he suspects more voters are coming around to the idea that districts have to turn to local voters if they want to meet students’ needs.
“I think there is a pretty good understanding among the electorate that referendums are really just part of how we fund education in Minnesota,” he said.
Several of the districts looking for extra funds, or to expand their facilities, are in the midst of an enrollment boom — or expecting one in the near future. That’s the case in White Bear Lake, where district officials expect to see their numbers surge by 2,000 students over the next decade.
Superintendent Wayne Kazmierczak said housing turnover in some parts of the district and rapid development elsewhere has created an enviable problem: too many students filling up the classrooms and hallways of many of the district’s buildings. If voters approve the bond, the district has plans for renovations and upgrades in every building, plus the construction of a new elementary school in Hugo.
Meanwhile, the bond would allow the district to resolve a long-term issue: its split-campus high school. Since the early 1980s, ninth- and 10th-grade students have attended school in one building, and 11th- and 12th-graders in another, about 5 miles away. The district estimates that owners of an average-priced home ($275,000) would pay an additional $23 per month, or about $280 per year.
If votes fail to pass the bond, Kazmierczak said the district would likely have to start looking at short-term solutions, like portable classrooms and increasing class sizes. And, he said, the district would likely be back with another bond referendum in the near future.
“If it doesn’t pass we would regroup, and in all likelihood would be going back” to voters, he said. “Because the growth is occurring, the students are coming, and we need to accommodate that growth.”
Similar growth spurts have school leaders in Rochester and Moorhead looking to their communities for more help. In Rochester, the school district is seeking to pass a $171 million bond that would fund the construction of a new middle school and three new or dramatically remodeled elementary schools, along with security upgrades in other buildings. A separate $9.5 million bond would pay for a new pool at Century High School and upgrades or re-purposing of other pools.
Superintendent Michael Muñoz said he’s been explaining to community members that the rapid expansion of Rochester’s property-tax base will help minimize the impact on taxpayers. If both questions pass, the owner of a $200,000 home would pay about $48 more each year.
In Moorhead, where student enrollment and property values have grown steadily over the past several years, school officials are turning to voters to help with building projects for the second time in less than five years. This time, the district is looking to pass a $110 million bond to build a new high school and remodel an old Sam’s Club building into a career academy. Officials say the current high school is over capacity and lacks critical features, like easily navigable spaces for students with disabilities and a secure entrance.
Assistant Superintendent Tamara Uselman said she’s heard from a few voters frustrated about being asked to spend more money, but feedback has been generally positive — especially when community members learn about the district’s plans for hands-on job training at the career center. Owners of a $200,000 home would see their tax bill rise by about $93 per year.
A handful of metro-area districts also are among those seeking to borrow money for construction projects. In eastern Carver County, the district is looking to pass a nearly $112 million bond for a new elementary school, bus garage and various maintenance projects. Lakeville voters will weigh in on a $43 million bond for security and technology upgrades, a new swimming pool, and turf practice fields. Elk River schools are looking for $113 million for districtwide renovations and maintenance projects. All three districts also are seeking to increase their local operating levies.
Meanwhile, other districts dealing with declining enrollment — and less state funding as a result — are telling voters that major cuts are imminent without additional funds. In Burnsville, where the district had to slice millions out of its budget this year, officials are facing a $5.5 million shortfall for the next school year, and are considering closing three school buildings. A proposed increase to the operating levy would raise $1.7 million to help fill that gap, but it wouldn’t be enough to stop the closure of the schools, said district spokesman Aaron Tinklenberg.
“The levy is just one part of what we’re doing as a school district to right-size and get ourselves on solid footing to get in the best positions to serve students and families,” he said.