Construction of new elementary school proposed to Wayzata School Board

Parents and teachers line up to greet students on opening day of Meadow Ridge Elementary, which opened last fall in northern Plymouth. A task force assembled by Wayzata Public Schools is recommending that the district build a ninth elementary school to further accommodate expected student growth. (Sun Sailor file photo by Jason Jenkins)

Growing student population, inadequate state funding driving needs, official says

As part of the June 12 Wayzata School Board meeting, Executive Director of Finance and Business Jim Westrum laid out the district’s 2017-18 operating budget and provided direction on three funding requests that could come before voters in November.

The district’s budget total for next year was approved by the school board at $192.47 million in expenditures, with $193.74 million in revenue.

Westrum noted that the district will continue spending the remaining dollars in the building construction fund as the district  completes the projects funded by the $109 million in bond funding to expand Wayzata High School, build Meadow Ridge Elementary and make district-wide upgrades to safety, security and technology infrastructure. Planned for the 2017-18 budget, Westrum said, is $14.53 million in spending and $10.47 million in revenue related to construction.

“We’re in the process of wrapping up the actual construction projects associated with the bond referendum that was approved by voters in 2014,” Westrum said.

The district’s general fund for 2017-18, which contains all revenue and expense for the day-to-day operations of the school district, totals $153.95 million in expenditures and $159.11 million in revenue.

Recently approved at the state legislature was a two-percent increase to the per-pupil general education formula for the 2017-18 and 2018-19 school years. Overall, Westrum said, the size of the formula increase is not enough to cover costs and will result in a shortfall of approximately $1.7 million for the district’s upcoming fiscal year, adding that school districts rely on state funding for the majority of their operating funds.

“Typically our expenditures grow at about three percent of the current year expenditures, so we typically will see a need of about three percent improvement on the formula,” Westrum said.

The district contends that inadequate state funding is putting increasing pressure on its operating budget. Since 2009, Westrum said, state funding increased an average of just over one percent per year while costs increased by three percent – forcing the district to cut more than $16 million from its operating budget during that same period,

“We were able to make these budget modifications and keep most of them away from students and from classrooms,” Westrum said.

To continue to keep budget cuts away from the classroom and provide long-term budget stability, the district’s Citizen’s Finance Advisory Council has recommended an increase of about $500 per pupil to the district’s operating levy, raising it from $1,487 per student to $1,974 per student, which is the state-authorized cap. The district’s projections show increased operating funds are needed to maintain class sizes, keep up with growing enrollment and provide students with support services.

“If we raise the voter-approved operating referendum to the cap, we wouldn’t have to make cuts in 2018-19, and it would provide a stable revenue source to the school district probably for five or more years,” Westrum said.

The operating levy contributes $18 million, or 14 percent, to the district’s annual budget, which is the source of funding for teachers, support staff, classroom supplies and other school operating needs. The last time the district asked voters to approve an increase in the operating levy was in 2005.

The finance director also discussed a bond referendum, which is being proposed for the construction of a new elementary school. The $70 million in bond funding would also cover additional facility needs, including work to improve traffic flow and pedestrian safety issues at the elementary schools and Central Middle School, work to enlarge the cafeteria at Central Middle School, renovations to elementary and middle school media centers and improvements to the performing arts spaces at East and West middle schools.

The school board will also consider whether or not to renew a district technology levy that will soon expire. The levy provides $3.4 million per year. The district has two technology levies – the other was approved for renewal by voters in 2014 at approximately $2.7 million annually.

Rising student enrollment remains a key factor in determining the district’s funding needs. Next year’s enrollment in Wayzata Public Schools is projected to grow by 285 students to 11,692, according to the district. If current housing trends continue, the district expects another 1,000 new K-12 students by 2019.

A housing and enrollment study indicates new housing developments are being built two to three times more rapidly than developers had projected in the north, and there is stable enrollment growth in the southern part of the district as older homes turn over to younger families.

Meadow Ridge, the district’s eighth elementary school, opened last fall north of Wayzata High, in one of the fastest growing areas in the district. An expansion, which district officials decided to move forward sooner than anticipated, will add another 10 classrooms and make room for an additional 150 to 175 students when it is completed in the fall of 2018. The cost to build Meadow Ridge was about $26 million, plus another $6.2 million for the addition.

Earlier this year, members of the district’s Growth Task Force recommended that a ninth elementary school be built to accommodate the increasing student population. The 25-member task force was assembled by the district to review student enrollment, housing trends and demographic data and advise the school board on how to plan for anticipated growth at the elementary level.

According to the district, projections suggest there is enough space at the middle schools and high school through at least 2030 due to the recent expansion of Wayzata High and moving early childhood programs from Central Middle School to the new Early Learning School.

For the three funding requests, the owner of an average-value home, which is currently $350,000, could expect an increase of approximately $14 per month if the operating levy increase is approved by voters. For $70 million in bond funding, an increase of approximately $6 per month could be expected. There would not be an increase to the current tax amount for the technology levy renewal.

The school board plans to further discuss the funding requests at its June 26 work session meeting and then decide on the requests at the July 10 school board meeting. If moved forward, the school board would direct Superintendent Chace Anderson to prepare a review and comment to be submitted to the commissioner of education for review. If the commissioner approves the requests, the community would be invited to provide comments at a future school board meeting. The referendum funding questions would then come before voters on Nov. 7.

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