November bond, levy now official

Board action to ask voters to revoke and replace existing levy, sell bonds totaling $113 million

by Kurt Nesbitt

Contributing Writer

Voters in the communities of Elk River, Otsego, Zimmerman, Rogers and beyond will have another referendum to weigh in on this November.

The Elk River Area School Board officially  agreed to put a couple questions on the ballot at its June 24 meeting.

Voters will have two questions in front of them: Do they want to increase the district’s operating levy, and, if so, do they also want the district to sell bonds?

District officials said those two questions are a year and a half in the making, since the process started with a series of community meetings held with parents and other members of the communities the district serves, statistical analysis of enrollment trends and professional opinion surveys of community attitudes toward education and the district.

Most of that data painted a picture of receptive public attitudes toward another referendum.

They also pointed to the district’s state and federal aid and inflation as reasons for seeking the new referendum.

There was little school board discussion of the proposal, as board members have heard and given feedback on referendum presentations, analyzed and questioned the statistical and public attitude survey reports and provided head nods at work sessions and special meetings earlier this summer to pursue another referendum.

The vote they took Monday night puts a question on the November ballot that could cancel the current $467-per student levy and replace it with one that would be $1,217 per student, and authorize the district to sell $113 million in bonds that will build another middle school, take care of delayed maintenance and bring facilities up to standards for equity.

“You have heard much of this, as had our public,” Superintendent Dan Bittman told school board members.

According to Bittman, District 728 has more than 13,000 students and that number is expected to grow significantly — at the rate of 200 a year. Bittman said that means in five to 10 years, there will be 2,000 more kids for whom the district doesn’t presently have room.

He mentioned the trend of budget cuts, telling the board that over the last six years, the district has cut $20.2 million to keep up with inflation, special education funding and what Bittman said are mandates for which the district is not reimbursed. He again said those things have had an impact on staff, programming and resources.

The Legislature improved the state’s per pupil funding formula in its last session, which generates an additional $1.7 million for this year and next.

“We’re grateful for that because that does help us, but that’s well short of what’s needed,” he said.

The superintendent repeated his earlier statements about inflation, arguing that if state and federal funding had kept pace with inflationary costs, the district would have had $9 million annually and would never have to cut its budget. He again mentioned the $10.2 million in budget cuts made weeks ago were to meet the costs created by state requirements.

Bittman repeated another part of his earlier statements about the district’s size in relation to its per-student revenue, arguing that while Elk River Area School District is the eighth-largest in Minnesota, it is 15th in revenue, and it can’t provide the same level of support without more dollars. He again pointed to the feedback officials received during the strategic planning process and the recent public opinion surveys as reasons for seeking a newer, higher referendum.

From there, Bittman started talking about the “meat and potatoes” of the referendum proposal. He said the question about the bond sale will depend on the responses to the question about the increased levy because the district can’t build new buildings and maintain existing facilities on the current levy. The proposal is for a $750-per student increase that will contribute an additional $11 million each year.

He said if voters approve the plan, students will have smaller class sizes, more support and current materials, and the district will have a more stable budget situation.

The tax impact on a $250,000 home would be $27.75 each month. If voters don’t approve the referendum, they risk the problems worsening, Bittman said.

Of the $113 million in bonds, $55 million would help build a new middle school and the rest would be split among deferred maintenance projects and facilities upgrades at the district’s three high schools. Bittman said the tax impact on a $250,000 home would be an additional $6.50 per month.

He said if voters don’t approve the bond sale, officials would need to add to the list of deferred maintenance costs, use dedicated classroom spaces to accommodate the increased enrollment and change school boundaries.

The Elk River Area School District could use lease-levy funding for the projects, but since interest rates are higher, so are taxes, and there are limits what can be built.

With the levy increase of $27.75 per month and the bond sale costing $6.75 per month, the district would reduce its other levy by $2.75 a month, making for a total increase of $31.75 per month, Bittman said.

Director Sarah Weis praised the planning and the process, calling  it “transparent and inclusive.”

Board chair Shane Steinbrecher reiterated what Bittman said about the public attitudes, saying the feedback from the meetings and surveys “highlights the desire to have equitable opportunities.”

He then called the referendum question and the board approved it unanimously.

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