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Proposed question would revoke existing levy, seek new 10-year operating levy

Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan School District officials are seeking School Board approval to put an operating levy question on the ballot this fall that would have an annual tax impact of $300 on the average-value district home if passed by voters.

District administrators presented their referendum recommendation at the June 24 School Board meeting and plan for a board vote on the proposal July 22.

According to School Board documents, officials are recommending that the board call for a special election Nov. 5 and put a question on the ballot that would revoke an existing operating levy passed in 2013 and replace it with a new, 10-year operating levy of $1,566.67 “per pupil” (an increase of $627 per pupil unit) with annual inflationary increases.

The district’s existing operating levy generates about $30 million each year and the proposed ballot question would raise an additional $19 million per year. The net tax impact of the proposed levy question would be $25 per month on the district’s average-value home of $286,500, the district said.

The district has said it faces an estimated $25 million shortfall over the next three years. The School Board approved $7 million in budget adjustments for the 2019-20 school year in February in an effort to begin closing the budget shortfall.

Superintendent Mary Kreger said the district made about $34 million in budget adjustments from 2009 to 2012, which resulted in the elimination of over 100 teaching positions and higher class sizes.

The board reviewed referendum options June 10 and 18. Board members reached a consensus to ask a single ballot question that would allow the district to prevent budget cuts of $18 million in 2020-21 and 2021-22; restore staff positions cut during budget adjustments approved for the 2019-20 school year; restore classroom staffing positions eliminated during budget cuts from 2009 to 2012; provide more mental health support staffing at all schools and restore after-school bus activity transportation that was cut in 2010.

On June 24, Kreger said the district was hopeful entering this year’s legislative session that the state would be able to provide “better funding increases to make up for some of the previous years of underfunding.”

“Even though we are in good economic times, the Legislature approved only inflationary increases for the next two years. While we are grateful for the increases we did receive, it’s apparent we cannot rely on the state to make up for previous underfunding,” she said.

Four district employees addressed the board about the possibility of a referendum question this fall.

Terri Greener, an Eastview High School counselor, said there is a need for more mental health support and to lower caseloads for counselors in schools. She said EVHS gave its ninth- and 10th-graders a survey in the fall of 2018, which included questions about their mental health and their desire to speak with a school counselor. Over 70 percent of students wanted to be contacted by their counselor and about 40 percent wanted to talk specifically about issues including depression, anxiety and self-harm.

Greener said she had a caseload of close to 500 students this year. Her days are filled with back-to-back appointments related to issues ranging from divorce to career counseling to school schedules, managing school phobia, attendance issues, panic attacks and severe depression.

“Our caseloads are far higher than our neighboring districts and in some cases are doubled what the nationally recognized recommendation and best practices are,” she said. “I’m asking as a mental health expert, as a parent and as a school counselor that you see this need and make the necessary changes to reduce our caseload and make it closer to the nationally recommended number of 250 per counselor. My fear is if we don’t make the necessary changes to protect our kids we will be facing some form of crisis or tragedy and be left wishing we had done something sooner.”

Jennifer Boldus, a Rosemount High School counselor, said adults in schools are usually the first to notice emerging mental health issues and the first people students trust to share their concerns. Students begin experiencing a mental illness, on average, around age 14.

Boldus said counselors are the liaisons between families, schools and students and the “triage experts” to refer students with severe needs to outside resources.

“There aren’t enough of us to go around. We want to better serve our students. We want to better help them,” she said, adding that the student-counselor ratio should be considered as part of the levy.

Greenleaf Elementary Principal Michelle deKam Palmieri said planning for $7 million in cuts for the 2019-20 school year have been challenging. She thanked the School Board for understanding the need to ask the community for support for an operating levy.

“We also know that all of these experiences really do require funding so we’re grateful for a school board that really, truly cares about our students and the need to fund those high expectations and the excellent programming we’re offering,” she said.

Tom Idstrom, Rosemount Elementary principal, said the $7 million in cuts will mean larger class sizes and less staff. Without an operating levy, an additional $18 million in cuts would have to be made and would affect class sizes, programs and services along with children and the district.

“These cuts and adjustments are not because of a spending issue. These are because of a funding issue,” he said, adding the funding issue is from the state.

Board members Bob Schutte, Art Coulson, Sachin Isaacs, Joel Albright and Jackie Magnuson voiced their support of going out for a levy.

Schutte likened going out for a referendum to repairing a house’s roof after being damaged by a storm. He said the homeowner could choose to do nothing but deterioration will happen and the home would get worse with time, or they can opt to spend what’s necessary to improve and return to what they want.

“I think it’s the same thing with the schools here. Our storm has happened. We’ve got holes in the roof, deterioration starting and it’s time to choose whether to repair and replace or let the damages get worse,” he said. “I hope you’ll join me in choosing to repair and replace so we can offer what we expect the district to provide.”

Patty Dexter can be reached at patty.dexter@ecm-inc.com.

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