A student helps campaign on a school referendum

Ramin Rahimian, Star Tribune file

Richfield, Elk River and Osseo had differing levy outcomes

  • Article by: MARIA ELENA BACA
  • Star Tribune
  • November 10, 2012 - 10:01 PM

Three metro-area school districts that asked voters for additional funds on Election Day had very different outcomes at the polls.

Voters in Richfield and Elk River approved levy renewals, but only Richfield was successful in its request for additional funding. Osseo voters turned down an operating funds increase and a capital levy for technology.

As the three superintendents reflected on their individual outcomes, they all had one thing in common: Aversion for a system that requires districts to ask voters for needed funding without regard to communities' ability to make up the gap between their needs and lagging state funding.

"Look at us, we have this tremendous vote on Nov. 6," said Richfield Superintendent Robert Slotterback. "I just sent an e-mail, with congratulations and let's celebrate, and oh, by the way, in 11 months and 27 days we'll have another referendum vote worth a million dollars."

Continually going to voters -- potentially four times in five years in Richfield -- will cause serious voter fatigue, he said. "That's just crazy."

Still, he said, there was real gratitude and relief for the successful referendums.

Last year -- a year before the current levy expires -- the district sought to increase its operating levy from $301 per pupil to $717 per pupil. That request was defeated.

This time around, the district separated its request into two questions, to just renew, with no increase, then to increase the district's levy authority by a more modest $60 a student. Both passed by a comfortable margin.

Though the vote renews the $1.26 million annual levy for 10 years and provides an additional $300,000 a year, the district still will have to make about a million dollars in cuts.

"If it didn't get renewed, the cuts were huge," Slotterback said. "If it got renewed, the cuts were big. If we got it renewed plus a small increase, the cuts were going to be less, but there's still going to be cuts."

Elk River: One yes, one no

In two ballot questions, Elk River asked voters to renew an existing levy of $386 per student, then to increase it by another $400 per student to start all-day kindergarten, update technology and shorten the curriculum cycle from 12 years to seven.

The district will continue to receive its $5.75 million annual levy but won't get the additional $6 million the second question would have provided. Half of that addition would have gone to fund district operations.

Superintendent Mark Bezek said he was thankful voters renewed the current levy for another 10 years. But while the inability to move forward with improvements is disappointing, the lack of additional operating funds will result in cuts up to $5 million in the next few years, the result of the loss of one-time stimulus and state funds and stagnant state funding at a time when operating costs continue to rise.

Bezek said the district will learn how much it has to cut when a district audit is done later this month.

He noted that 85 percent of his budget is people, many of whom are in the classroom.

"We had just gotten class sizes down to manageable numbers," he said. "This will have the potential of kicking class sizes up again."

Still, he said leadership changes at the state Legislature may bode well for schools.

"I hope they can divide from their national caucuses and start looking at Minnesota as a whole and drop partisanship and do what's best for kids," he said.

Osseo: Disappointment

In Osseo, there was no silver lining, though Superintendent Kate Maguire spoke passionately about the dedication of staff and community members who worked tirelessly to spread awareness of the need for a five-year, $385 per student levy increase and an annual capitol funds increase of $5 million a year for 10 years for technology and curriculum.

Both measures failed. The margin for the first question was only 124 votes. In several precincts it went down by fewer than 20 votes; in a couple, the spread was two or three.

"I'm disappointed because I understand the impact that this can have on our kids, and subsequently our community," she said. "We've been here before, and it's not good. And we're doing such good work."

There's a balance to be found, she said, in telling voters the great things a district is doing and being completely frank about the district's inability to keep up with rising costs.

"Less money doesn't mean lower expectations," Maguire said. "But how fast we make progress will certainly be impacted negatively."

Maria Elena Baca • 612-673-4409

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