The Stillwater Area Public Schools District is asking the public to renew an expiring operating levy on Nov. 2, with an increase of 2.7 million per year. On a separate ballot question, the district is also asking voters to pass the district’s first ever technology levy that, if passed, will provide a dedicated $4.7 million for technology funding each year.

The operating levy, which was originally passed in 2013, expires at the end of the 2021-2022 school year, and it currently generates $12.25 million each year.

The board approved sending both questions to the ballot at a Aug. 12 meeting on a 5-1 vote. Board member Tina Riehle was the sole dissenting vote.

If voters reject the renewal, the district would face significant reductions in staff and programs, interim district finance director John Thein said.

“We’ve cut our budget a number of times since 2013 for a total of $7 million dollars,” Thein said.

If only the renewal levy passes, the tax burden will increase by $2 per month using an estimate of a median home in Washington County worth $350,000. If both measures pass, it will increase the tax burden by close to $11 per month, the district’s website states. If both measures pass it will provide the district with $7.4 million per year.

The $2.7 increase is needed over a straight renewal because of inflation, district leaders said.

If state funding had kept up with inflation since 2003 ISD 834 schools would receive $500 more per student for a total of $4.2 million more this year, according to Minnesota Department of Education and the Association of Metropolitan School District 2021 inflation estimates.

The current levy makes up about 10.4% of the district’s general fund budget.

The tax burden is lower than any of the surrounding districts, Thein said.

“(That lower burden) illustrates we are trying to be good stewards of district funds, and we’re trying to be conservative with the dollars you provide,” Thein said.

Superintendent Malinda Lansfeldt said the operating levy is needed to maintain Stillwater’s quality education.

“Our current levy is expiring, and we have more needs with our students,” Lansfeldt said. “We have years of inadequate state funding that has not kept up with inflation.”

State budget increases

The state legislature passed an education budget increase. The Minnesota legislature passed a 2.45% and a 2% increase for school funding at the end of the most recent legislative session for education.

Lansfeldt said even with the large increase, the district still needs the operating levy renewal for the district to keep up.

“That is historic in the last 15 years, those are the largest increases we’ve seen, but they still do not keep up with all of the state funding gaps for the previous years,” she said.

Assistant Superintendent Jennifer Cherry concurred with the superintendent.

“This is an ask to maintain quality learning in our schools,” Cherry said. “As a replacement levy, what we’re looking at is renewing the expiring levy, and then adding just a bit to help us stabilize our district’s budget.”

If the levy passes, the increase will go to address the state funding gap, rising costs and inflation.

“So we’re looking at our replacement levy, our focus is on retaining our teachers and our support staff,” Cherry said. “Maintaining those existing programs and services that our community has grown to love. We have a wonderful array of services and activities. We’re known for our music program here in Stillwater.”

The district plans to focus on academic achievement with the replacement levy.

Cherry noted there are many unknown factors and the district can’t promise there won’t be any future budget cuts if the renewal levy passes; however, she noted that because the district is focusing on maintaining current programming, it’s passage will minimize any budget cuts.

If the levy isn’t renewed, because of inflation any budget shortfall would increase in future years. If the operating levy doesn’t pass, it could add 10 or more students to classrooms.

“That is a lot of bodies crammed into one class,” Cherry said.

The district estimates it could lose more than 100 full time teachers and support staff.

Board response

At the end of a more than five hour meeting, board member Tina Riehle read a statement about why she was voting against placing the levies on the ballot.

“I have a legislative duty to ensure that students receive a fulfilling academic experience that this community pays for,” Riehle said. “I won’t settle for anything less than excellence as our goal. Mediocrity is not good enough, and declining achievement is unacceptable. In my opinion, withholding academic proficiencies — especially literacy — is the most inequitable action pertaining to educational public service.”

“This levy renewal is a performance review, and before I can agree to move forward, I need to see actions in place for improvement,” Riehle said. “They are consistently missing from this conversation.”

Katie Hockert thanked the district for their work on crafting the two measures.

“The first levy (the renewal) question is pretty conservative,” Hockert said. “It is pretty much what we need to keep ourselves going, and that is respectful of the current climate. It is a slight increase over a straight renewal, which I am comfortable asking because everything costs more.”

Board Chair Bev Petrie agreed with Hockert.

“I was proud to cast a yes vote on this, and I look forward to talking with our community about what this is going to do for the students in our community,” Petrie said. “We were the very first school district in the state, and I think we have a lot to be proud of here.”

A work session addressing what is on the ballot is available online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QovvDEQTvRk

Combined Polling Locations Update

School board members voted 6-0 to approve a resolution for the 2021 Combined Polling Locations. By state law, the board may establish a combined polling place for several precincts for school district elections not held on the day of a statewide election as a cost-saving measure.

Combined polling locations

School board members voted 6-0 to approve a resolution for the 2021 Combined Polling Locations, according to the district’s website.

By state law, the board may establish a combined polling place for several precincts for school district elections not held on the day of a statewide election as a cost-saving measure.

Contact Matt DeBow at Matt.DeBow@apgecm.com

Load comments