On July 22, the Watertown-Mayer school board unanimously approved going to the ballot this November with a voter-approved operating levy referendum and a facilities bond levy. The ballot this November will feature two separate questions, and the voter-approved operating levy must be approved for the facilities bond levy to pass.
It’s important to consider how the school got here in the first place, as there are a few factors that contribute. The main factor, though, is inflation. As inflation continues to be a problem for everybody, schools everywhere are also feeling the strain on the budgets. Even with the state providing 2 percent more funding per year, most school budgets simply aren’t able to keep up with inflation.
“I think every superintendent in the state of Minnesota would say that we’re very grateful with what we’ve been getting recently with those increases,” said Ron Wilke, Watertown-Mayer superintendent. “But over the longer haul that has an erosion that starts to catch up with you after a while.”
State funding, for Watertown-Mayer, accounts for roughly 81 percent of the school district’s budget. However, since state funding is not keeping pace with inflation, most school districts around the state are relying more and more on voter-approved operating levies to combat inflation deficits.
The last voter-approved operating levy for Watertown-Mayer was in 2011. This doesn’t mean the budget has stayed the same since then, but it’s clear for the district that the current levy can’t sustain the priorities and needs of the district.
Currently, the voter-approved operating levy generates $67 per student in revenue. The new operating levy is asking voters to increase the number by $425, which equals $492 per student. This number was reached based on the surrounding schools, with Waconia bringing $536 per student and Dassel-Cokato $663. The new levy would allow the school to compete with the surrounding competition while staying within a manageable range for the community for Watertown-Mayer.
“The funding system has created a reliance on the voter-approved local operating levy, and in districts where there’s a large tax base, it’s much easier to pass larger operating levies,” said Wilke. “So that’s why the board has decided on what they think is very reasonable and respecting our voters and taxpayers with what we hope they will be willing to support.”
An operating levy applies to all school operations, from supplying teacher salaries and benefits to helping fund extracurricular activities and elective courses, and even more beyond that. Things that the community has valued in the April survey, such as smaller class sizes and more course offerings, are seriously affected by the operating levy. No increased levy means the class sizes will go up as and extracurricular activities would be reduced, as over the next three years there would be a need to reduce the budget by $1.5 million.
As for buildings and facilities, a facilities bond levy will also be on the ballot this year. The last bond levy was approved in 2007, which was to construct the elementary school and additions to the high school. The facilities bond levy proposed this November would cover the projects that didn’t apply in the 2007 bond levy.
“There are a number of areas in terms of facilities in the school district that weren’t touched with the previous referendum, including our libraries and media centers, the outdoor Phy Ed., football and soccer fields, and the track,” said Wilke. “The last time the track was surfaced was 20 years ago, and it’s reaching the point where it’s posing some safety risks for students.”
It’s not just the track, either. Much of the infrastructure, according to Wilke, is outdated and in need of repair or updating. Classrooms are in need of updates to space and technology while parking lots are not safe for pedestrians and drivers due to poor layouts and congestion. All in all, there are fixes for most aspects of facilities around the school, which is why the board is also asking for a bond levy this year.
The district is hoping that their three-point solution is what will make the district as successful as can be. First, the district plans to continue being efficient with their priorities while eliminating what no longer fits within those priorities. They also plan to continue building private and public partnerships in order to expand or enhance programs, such as the robotics program. Finally, they hope to increase the voter-approved operating levy to not only keep with their priorities, but also the community’s values.
As for the tax impact, it varies from home to home, but the calculation for an average home, valuing $230,000 in the community, would be a total of $14.34 per month with both levies approved, or $172 per year. If your particular home isn’t within this range, the school will soon have a calculator on the website for residents to know the exact tax impact.
The school also plans to keep communicating with the community right up until the election in November. If you have any further questions regarding the referendum that have yet to be answered, contact Ron Wilke at Ron.Wilke@wm.k12.mn.us or 952-955-0485.