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Schools going up, but will they open?

  • Article by: Emily Johns
  • Star Tribune
  • October 2, 2007 - 4:28 PM

Construction crews fill the site in south Savage where the new Redtail Ridge Elementary is going up.

While the lower level is starting to look like a school, with concrete walls and brickwork on some of the exterior, the upper level is still mostly exposed to the elements, a network of beams.

The building is slated to be ready for the start of school for 2008-09.

Whether the Prior Lake-Savage district will be ready for it, though, is another matter. And Prior Lake-Savage is not the only district where that's the case.

The Prior Lake-Savage and Farmington school districts will ask voters in November to approve property tax increases to help fund the operations of schools. But each district is accompanying its plea with this: If we don't get the money, a new, multi-million dollar school may sit empty for at least a year.

In Farmington, the school district will have one more chance after this fall to get the money to operate its $100 million high school, slated to open in fall 2009. Prior Lake-Savage says it won't be able to open the $16.8 million Redtail Ridge building if voters don't approve an operating levy this year.

School officials say the problem is that they have to ask voters separately to approve money to build a school and then to operate it.

Asking for operating funds too early means taxpayers' money could sit in district coffers for years while buildings are constructed. Asking for the money right before the school opens means the district runs the risk of having to mothball a brand new school if voters reject a referendum.

"I've never had taxpayers say, 'Please take my money two years in advance before you need it,' " Prior Lake-Savage Superintendent Tom Westerhaus said.

The south-metro problem

Across Minnesota, 100 school districts will ask voters in November to raise their own property taxes to fund school operations. In the south metro, school funding problems are exacerbated because the vast majority of school districts are growing and need to make room for students while cutting budgets.

Understanding the difference between bond and levy referendums is critical to understanding the school finance issue. Bonds are used to finance new school buildings., and bond referendums may be posed to voters any time. Levy referendums, on the other hand, pay for day-to-day school operations, and can only be held during regular November elections. School districts may not ask for money to build a school and operate it in the same ballot question.

Voters in Prior Lake approved construction of two new elementary schools in February 2005. One, Jeffers Pond, was to be built right away. The district thought it would open Redtail Ridge for the 2009-2010 school year and would get approval for operating funds when it renewed its expiring levies in November 2008. Rapid growth changed the plans, and construction started a year early.

So the school board needed to ask voters for operating money a year earlier than anticipated.

After an operating levy question failed in the Belle Plaine district last fall, the district told voters it might not be able to open the new Oak Crest Elementary School for a year. The district did not ask voters to approve funding to run the school when the money to build it was approved.

"We felt when we brought the [building financing] to the public, at that point we did not have a very good number as to the cost of operating a new school, nor did we have the information regarding the level of funding the state of Minnesota was going to provide," said Superintendent Kelly Smith. "We just felt there were too many unknowns at the time to ask for any particular amount of money."

In the end, the school district found money to open the school this fall. Long-used portable classrooms were falling apart, and finding enough space for all the district's students would have cost nearly as much as opening the new school.

"We felt that opening the school was the greater good," said Smith.

Keeping them closed

The Prior Lake-Savage district estimates it would cost about $150,000 in security and utility costs to keep the building closed. But opening it would cost $1.4 million, the equivalent of 38 staff positions.

"None of us wants a new school building ... to sit unused for a year," said school board member Dick Booth. "But the alternative ... is a lot more expensive."

Farmington finance director Jeff Priess said the school district would not be able to open the new Farmington High School until it got an operating levy past voters. One of three levy questions the district is asking voters to approve would provide $1.69 million a year for 10 years towards opening and operating the high school.

If this year's question fails, the district could ask again next year without the school having to sit empty. But if that fails?

"We just wouldn't have the operating dollars to open the school," he said.

Emily Johns • 612-673-7460

Emily Johns • ejohns@startribune.com

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