Seniors at St. Francis High School will slide their cap tassels to the left at graduation this May under the fluorescent glow of gymnasium lights — to the consternation of some students and families.
Critics of the indoor venue are pushing instead for an outdoor ceremony on the football field, where commencement has been held before, most recently in 2017.
Construction on the stadium last year drove the ceremony indoors to the gym, the more common location in past years.
But a recent school board motion to move graduation back outdoors failed on a 3-2 vote, with officials citing budget concerns that stem from dipping enrollment. The district is looking to shave $300,000 from its roughly $50 million budget following a $3.7 million cut last year. District officials said at a February meeting that outdoor graduation could cost an estimated $12,000 more than indoor graduation.
The decision has touched off a thorny debate in northern Anoka County and southern Isanti County, spurring pleas from some students for the board to reconsider.
Students’ efforts include an online petition with more than 300 signatures and talk of fundraising to cover the additional costs of an outdoor ceremony.
Seating constraints in the gym mean that each student will be limited to four tickets, with the overflow crowd likely to be diverted as in years past to the school’s performing arts center to watch a live feed.
“People were having to decide if they invite their stepmom or their biological mom, and if their brother or sister get to come see them graduate,” said Madison Nelmark, a senior spearheading the petition effort. “It upset a lot of students.”
Some see graduation as an area suitable for cost trims. It’s the kind of dilemma playing out statewide.
In St. Francis, an outdoor ceremony on the football field carries an estimated $20,000 price tag, while an indoor ceremony would cost about $8,000, according to district officials at a Feb. 28 special meeting.
“If we’re projected to lose $300,000 and have to cut back staffing and indoor programs, how can you justify $12,000 extra for outdoor graduation?” said Mike Starr, a school board member who voted against an outdoor ceremony.
But others say the cost difference is smaller than previously thought, with more recent district estimates showing it closer to $7,000, said Sean Sullivan, the school board’s vice chairman.
Plus, the $300,000 in cuts are being weighed for the 2019-20 budget, while $20,000 already is included for graduation in the approved budget for this school year, he said.
“It was a budgeted item for the class of 2019,” said Sullivan, who voted in favor of the outdoor option. “We have the money in there to do it, and I think we should try and stick with the budget.”
Board Member Scott Schwarz cited weather as another worry. If officials can reduce outdoor costs and avoid ceremony delays if bad weather strikes, the board may reconsider the issue, he said.
“It’s not for sure and set in stone,” said Schwarz, who voted against the outdoor option. “Anything can be changed and brought up to the board.”
That’s the hope of those who describe the gym as too hot and too cramped for graduation-sized crowds.
“We have put our hearts and souls into this school,” said senior Mackenzie Goedel. “We just can’t believe that we don’t get the graduation we’ve been hoping for.”