The STMA School Board met Monday, June 28, to continue its ongoing discussions of a potential operating referendum this fall. At this work session, Director of Business Services Kris Crocker reviewed the numbers behind the massive deficit, and gave a summary of the steering committee’s progress thus far.
According to the district, the revised FY2021 budget shows “an approximate $4.1 million deficit spend,” which can be attributed to a decline in enrollment amid the pandemic. Unfortunately, as a result, FY2022 shows a $5-$6 million deficit and FY2023 shows a $7-$8 million deficit. Thus, this potential levy would be used to uphold STMA’s functioning without plummeting further into debt.
Krocker also addressed a few technical parts of the potential referendum, and acknowledged that if it does go to election, the vote will be phrased on the ballot in terms of dollars per pupil, rather than a gross amount. Thus, the revenue raised from the referendum will be “a moving target” based on enrollment.
Similarly, the board and committee will need to decide on a duration for the potential referendum, with Krocker and the district’s Ehlers advisor, Shelby McQuay recommending between 7-10 years.
“The majority of the districts go for ten years, and that just has to do with the fact that they want to minimize the additional costs for an election,” said McQuay. “You might want to consider where that would land you in terms of the next election ... does it put you in a presidential election, or could you combine it with a county election so you don’t bear all of the costs?”
Superintendent Dr. Foucault said that the Steering Committee was split between 5 and 10 years, thus resulting in the proposed recommendation of seven years.
The board then went around expressing their questions, concerns and the like with the current information available on the potential referendum. Board member Hollee Saville requested more detailed breakdowns of how the levy funds would contribute to the school’s spending, as compared to the current situation.
“If the levy doesn’t pass, what would be cut?” asked Saville. “If we are saying, ‘We could cut these,’ what does that mean? Cutting middle school sports? Everything but the JV and Varsity? Cutting music, cutting arts?”
“We are telling voters things will be cut, but what would we be saving with a levy?”
Superintendent Foucault answered, confirming board member fears of the grim nature of cuts.
“We are so lean at STMA; we cut just about everything we could’ve possibly cut,” she said. “So it would be in those classrooms ... those 70 staff members that we cut? It would be at least another 50-70.”
The board pondered a few other what-if scenarios, such as the previously discussed option of expanding the district’s walk zone, and Chairperson Drew Scherber chimed in with his analysis.
“With that amount of money you can cut programs, you raise parking fees, you can increase attendance at games … [But] that is just nickels and dimes,” he said. “We are cutting millions of dollars — that’s people. That’s just what it is … You can’t cut that amount without cutting people.”
As of now, the proposed recommendation for the referendum sits at $7.5 million.
“This amount, this $7.5 million, is what we need. There are no bells or whistles attached to it,” said Superintendent Foucault. “This is what we need to maintain our current programming, to maintain that current excellence that we are so proud of …. It is not anything extra. Seventy-one percent of Minnesota districts have a levy, and we do not.”
The board looked over draft district messaging for voters — which will not be made public if and until the operating referendum comes to a vote — and were urged by chairperson Scherber to begin thinking about their stance on the situation.
Before heading into citizen input and concluding the meeting, treasurer Tim Lewis suggested that his former board members and listening residents look into their own tax trajectory over the last few years when thinking about the vote.
“We have a wonderful tool online that is accessible to all of us, it is called Beacon, and if other members haven’t gone out and looked at their taxes and how they have changed from city, county and school standpoint, you should,” he said. “Since that 2016 vote, my own personal school district taxes have gone up $200 … My school taxes in 11 years have gone up 17%, my city taxes have gone up 35%, my county taxes have gone up 44%, and my property value has gone up 31%.”
“Frankly, the taxing authority from the district has significantly laid behind the city and the county.”
After hearing from multiple concerned residents, the board adjourned, with its next meeting scheduled for July 12. After that meeting, the next time the board will be together will be Aug. 2, where they will vote on the potential referendum.