In the last school board meeting of the 2020-21 school year, the Orono School Board made a big change in when school board members are elected.
In a unanimous vote, the Orono School Board approved a resolution to move their elections to even-numbered years from odd-numbered years.
That means the elections that were scheduled to be held this year will wait a year until November 2022. It also means that three members of the current school board - chair Bob Tunheim, Martha Van De Ven, and Sarah Borchers will get one more year on the board before being up for re-election. Those three members terms were supposed to be up in 2021 but with the move to even-numbered years election there term won’t be up until 2022. The three members whose terms were supposed to be up in 2023 will now see their term up in 2024.
Board member Mike Bash presented the resolution to the board on Monday, June 14 and gave two main reason why the move would be beneficial to the district - cost and more participation.
Bash said that the school board election in 2019 cost the school district about $22,000 to conduct with the district bearing the costs of election judges, voting machines, ballots and public notices. For elections in even-numbered years, the city of Orono would conduct the elections and they would bill the school district which they estimated to be less than $5,000.
He also pointed out the indirect costs of staff having to work on elections instead of district business and that those costs have only risen with the increase in the early voting.
As for voting participation, Bash said that for the district elections in 2015 and 2017 they had less than 1,000 ballots cast for the school board elections. In 2019, when they held both an election and a levy referendum they had less than 3,000 ballots cast. In 2020, the school board had a levy referendum on the ballot for a general election and they had around 9,000 ballots cast for the levy.
“Going to the even-year really, really gives more voters the opportunity to vote for school board elections and that’s something as citizens should want to get as many people voting as we can get,” Bash said.
Bash also presented the board with the downside of the change saying the board elections could get lost in fray with big federal and state office elections also being held and it could bring more partisanship to the school board.
“Is it possible that people will miss the school board elections because we are not one of the prominent races on the front, its possible but again with the much higher turnout we don’t really see that as a big problem,” Bash said.
Van De Ven said she was concerned about partisanship coming to board if approved but voted to approve the resolution.
“I was a person who was very concerned about moving towards partisanship,” she said. “I really don’t want this to become a partisanship issue but when you think about what happened to other school districts and it has not become partisanship, I have to listen to other school districts and see what happened and I feel comfortable with this resolution.”
Orono has had odd-numbered year elections since 1994 and was one of only 29 out of 332 school districts that held elections in odd-numbered years.
In other board action, the board approved a revised 2020-21 budget and gave preliminary approval to the 2021-22 school year budget.
Director of Business Services Jon Morstad presented to the board that the district will finish the 2020-21 school year with a $1.7 million deficit.
“We are going to go from expecting a surplus of around a half a million dollars to expecting a deficit of about $1.7 million and that is summarized simply with the word COVID,” he told the board. “That’s the only way I can put it.”
The district saw revenues raise by about $417,000 due to about $1.2 million in relief funds from the state and federal government but that wasn’t enough to overcome a $2.2 million increase in expenses this year due to COVID.
“While The district is incredibly grateful to both the state and federal government for the additional funds that were provided to help with coronavirus relief there are a lot of misconceptions out there that school districts are flush with cash because of this,” Morstad said. “There are some that are, unfortunately Orono is not one of those districts. We figured for the $1.2 million dollars we got we ended up having to spend $3.2 million to make happen and survive the pandemic for this past year. I feel its important that people understand that we aren’t flush with cash because of that. Unfortunately, its some what a punishment of success. The districts that have done an incredible well job and are high performing districts typically got very little money.”
Morstad went on to present the board with the preliminary budget for the upcoming 2021-22 school year.
He told the board the estimated enrollment for the next school year will be 2,907 students with 189 kindergarten students and that the general fund revenue will drop $41,602 but that expenses will drop by almost five percent or $1.975 million dollars.
The preliminary budget calls for $58,028,664 in revenue while expenses will run at $57,974,239 with the school fund balance going from $16.4 million to $14.6 million.
“We are financially healthy. We have a very good cash flow,” Morstad said. “Our five-year projection is showing that things stabilize and things are moving in the right direction so we are in a pretty comfortable place and fortunately the district had a fund balance reserve to weather the storm.”
During the community members questions and comments section, chair person Tunheim answered a number of questions from the community.
On if they will offer a distance learning option next year - “Our administrative team is studying it as an option. It would not be solely distance learning unless again we are required to do so by the pandemic or similar pandemic. Its being studied and we will announce our position on that when that study is concluded.”
On if district will require masks next year – “Once we know for sure and get guidance from the state we will put out a statement but it is our current intent that masks would not be required in the fall. We are not doing it this summer and don’t intend to do it next fall.”
On Critical Race theory – “First of all, we don’t adopt theory. We really have no interest in adopting this and so be assured it is not something that is apart of our curriculm or will be part of our curriculm.”
If vaccinations will be required - “The answer right now is no – unless required to be by the state. As we are told by our legal council, this is a state issue and not a district issue. If required by the state we would require otherwise we would not require vaccinations.”