Renee Rushdy has seen Eden Prairie school support staff disappear from the classroom and her children’s class size increase because of money slashed from the district’s budget in recent years.
“They’ve been cutting and cutting and cutting,” she said. “And there’s just no fluff, no fat left to cut anymore. So yes, I’m nervous.”
What has Rushdy and other parents anxious is school leaders’ pledge to cut another $10 million if Eden Prairie residents don’t vote Tuesday to renew and increase a portion of the school’s expiring operating levy.
On the district’s chopping block if the levy is allowed to expire: block scheduling at the high school, gifted and talented programs for elementary students, teachers at every grade level, counselors and even some bus routes.
“When you cut $17.7 million over 10 years, well, that’s a paper cut,” said Eden Prairie High School Principal Conn McCartan. “But when you cut 11 percent of the district’s budget in one year, you’re going to hit an artery.”
The west metro school district is one of 39 in Minnesota asking voters next week to renew or increase an operating levy or, as in Eden Prairie’s case, both. Another 26 districts are asking voters to approve the sale of bonds to pay for school construction.
Some Eden Prairie residents question why they should give the district more money when it experienced declining enrollment in recent years.
“The district is over 1,000 students down yet they continue to ask for more money, while the school board has not been transparent about how that money will be spent,” resident Donna Azarian said.
Some Eden Prairie residents are still reeling from the district’s decision almost four years ago to change school boundaries, a flap that caused some families to leave the district and led to the resignation of superintendent Melissa Krull.
The stakes are particularly high for Eden Prairie because the levy is expiring at the end of this school year. Without it, the district will lose a major funding source. And because the district has been dipping into reserves to lessen the sting of past cuts, its financial cushion is deflated.
“If you take away 10 percent of your home budget or cut 10 percent from the budget of the company where you work, yes, you could probably survive,” Superintendent Curt Tryggestad said. “But it wouldn’t be pleasant.”
Referendum supporters do not have history on their side. Eden Prairie voters haven’t approved a school levy request in a decade. And last year — the first time the district asked for more money — voters shot down the proposal to replace the levy with a higher amount.
But a lot has changed in recent years. The district has several new school board members, a new leader and almost a complete turnover in the administrative cabinet.
Tryggestad is overseeing a very different campaign to get the referendum passed this year. To start with, the campaign began this summer— about three months before last year’s push. Over the past month, an armada of parents and residents have been knocking on doors each weekend, urging others voters to support the referendum. So far, supporters have picked up endorsements from the local chamber of commerce and the Eden Prairie Community Foundation.
Supporters say local schools are falling behind as neighboring districts have asked voters two, three, four times in the past 10 years for more money.
“We’ve managed our money well for 10 years, and I appreciate that,” said Ken Robinson, co-chairman of the Vote Yes Twice committee. “It’s one of the reasons why I support this.”
Another major difference between this new proposal and the failed one last year is the impact on taxpayers’ wallets.
This year’s levy would cost about half of last year’s for the owner of a $325,000 house. That decrease, school officials say, is because the district is about to pay off outstanding bond debt, improving the overall financial picture.
If voters approve the first question, school leaders say they will be able avoid cuts for five years. If voters approve the second question, it will allow the district to restore some of the past cuts and invest in technology and smaller class sizes for kindergarten and first-grade students. If both questions are passed, the levy would raise $14.2 million annually.
School leaders are reluctant to say they feel optimistic about the upcoming vote, but do feel like they’ve done a better job educating voters.
“They understand there’s a cliff ahead,” Tryggestad said.