The Waconia School District will go to local voters this fall asking for an extra $410 per student, or nearly $2 million in additional revenue to fund operations and help get the district out of debt.

After months of discussion and review of various options, District 110 school board members on Monday unanimously approved putting an operating levy question on the Nov. 3, 2020 ballot. The board and school administrators had earlier agreed that seeking another operating levy is the only way to help extract the district from statutory operating debt (SOD) without making significant cuts to programs.

“We fully understand that we are in the midst of a pandemic and these are challenging economic times for many families,” said Pat Devine, superintendent, Waconia Public Schools, said in a news rlease. “Even so, we know that access to quality education is also critically important to our residents.”

The ballot question will ask voters to consider approving a $410 per student levy increase, which would generate nearly $2 million in additional revenue to “maintain the educational programs, and continue to provide the quality education the community expects and students deserve,” Devine said. The tax impact on an average homeowner ($350,000 value home) would be under $20 per month.

ISD 110’s current operating levy is lower than most school districts in the area, and would remain so even if the levy request is approved, according to school officials. Voter-approved levies are one way local communities support their schools by providing funding for staff, classroom supplies and other critical school operating costs.

“Many people may wonder why we are requesting an operating levy increase when one was approved in 2018,” Devine said. “The 2018 operating levy was expected to set the district’s finances for a number of years. But, shortly after the 2018 levy was passed, an unexpected reduction in reimbursements from the state for special education expenses hit our district’s budget particularly hard.”

As reported previously, the district had a $6.5 million operating deficit at the end of the 2018-2019 school year, driven by what Devine described as a perfect storm financially: the unexpected change in how districts are reimbursed for special education costs, state education funding not keeping pace with inflation, and a strategic decision to draw down reserves rather than eliminate programs in support of the district’s commitment to academic excellence.

While state and federal governments have never fully reimbursed special education expenses, which has had a negative impact on districts across the state, the special education funding change was particularly devastating for District 110. The amount of money ISD 110 must pull from its budget to cover those expenses nearly doubled, resulting in an unanticipated major hit to the budget and putting the district into statutory operating debt.

Without the community’s support for the 2018 operating levy, the current situation would have been much worse, Devine said.

When a district spends more money than it takes in and reaches a percentage of debt precisely defined by state statute, it enters SOD. Under state law, the district is then subject to budget restrictions and must develop a plan to get out of debt.

The decision to pursue a levy increase is part of District 110’s state-approved plan to restore the district’s financial stability. Over the past two years, District 110 also has made budget reductions of about $2.5 million.

While those cuts have largely been kept away from the classroom, that would not be true for future cuts, according to school administrators. If the upcoming levy is not approved by voters, the district would need to make at least $1 million in additional cuts to the 2021-2022 school year. Cuts would result in class size increases, and reduced support for students and teachers.

“We know that we have a very supportive community and a tradition of excellence and pride in our schools,” said Devine. “This vote is about our schools, our communities and our future. This will allow our community to determine what type of schools we have at ISD110.”

More information about the operating levy request will be available in the next several weeks on the district’s website, through district mailings, email newsletters and in community meetings.

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