On May 24, the Prior Lake-Savage school district will ask voters to approve a $150 million referendum question — the largest tax request in district history — to accommodate the district’s growing enrollment.
Passing the proposal would approve a $129 million bond for a new elementary school and alternative learning center; additions to every school, including 89 new classrooms; and a $15 million athletic complex including six gyms.
A technology levy, at $2.125 million annually over 10 years, would maintain and expand the district’s devices, software, hardware and security systems, freeing up operating budget money to run the schools.
District enrollment is projected to increase by 250 students annually for five years thanks to more than 1,000 new homes projected to be built in Prior Lake and Savage over that period, said Teri Staloch, the Prior Lake-Savage superintendent.
“I’m really proud of the process we’ve had,” Staloch said. “I just think we’ve been really responsive to hearing community input.”
Previous plans asked for $9 million more in referendum funds and a tech levy totaling an additional $325,000, Staloch said, but those figures were cut in response to residents’ input.
Both measures are packaged together into one ballot question, which would amount to an annual property tax increase of $372 for owners of an average $300,000 home in the district.
“I’m not going to minimize the tax impact at all,” Staloch said. “The other part that I want to highlight, though, is we really have been fiscally responsible.”
She points to the district’s upgraded bond rating and low per-pupil spending. At $12,524 in 2014, Prior Lake-Savage allocates about $1,800 less than the metro-area average, Staloch said.
The district’s last successful bond referendum was in 2005. In 2008, a renewal of the $7 million existing levy plus an additional $1.65 million passed, while a second question asking for $700,000 to hire more teachers failed.
Frivolous or fundamental?
But building six gyms and a $35.6 million elementary school seems frivolous to some residents, who have organized a “vote no” group. They want the school board to come back with a revised plan.
“Our priorities are way out of whack,” said Erin Haust, a parent affiliated with the “vote no” group. “We’re focused on athletic facilities and this kind of odd wish list from the school board instead of dealing with our classrooms and size issues.”
Having 10 gyms would put the high school “in the norm,” on par with schools like Eden Prairie, Shakopee and Wayzata, said Staloch, who said the varsity gymnastics team has to practice at a middle school and daytime gym classes are called off when band or choir prepares for concerts in the gym.
“We need the [gym] space,” said Bill DeMars, chairman of the “vote yes” group. “It’s not a ‘nice to have,’ it’s truly needed space.”
DeMars said the gyms will eventually be “revenue neutral” since after-school sports groups pay to use them, but he wasn’t sure when revenue would exceed the cost. The high school can also host tournaments with so much space, generating money.
But Prior Lake and Savage don’t have a bevy of wealthy residents or a big commercial tax base to fund a high-priced referendum like the communities they’re being compared to, Haust said. “We don’t even have a CVS, for goodness’ sakes.”
If the referendum fails, DeMars worries class sizes will become too large and kids will have to settle for late-night gym time.
Haust said she is prepared to vote no. “I’ve never voted against a referendum ever,” she said. “But this one in particular is just so enormous.”