Milaca Public School District 912 Superintendent Tim Truebenbach has been making the community rounds in advance of a critical Nov. 5 operating levy and bond referendum.
Last week, it was city leaders’ turn for a pre-election update.
Truebenbach and Board Member Sara Larsen spoke during the council’s Oct. 17 meeting, providing background on an annual operating levy of $448,955 that’s proposed over 10 years and a $5.1 million, 15-year facility bond referendum.
Prior to his levy and referendum presentation, Truebenbach provided a student achievement update before the council. Four years ago, the Milaca district set a goal within its strategic plan to rise above state averages in student achievement, based on state testing and MCA scores.
From three groups at or above state average in 2016, the Milaca district now has 14 groups that have attained that measure of student educational achievement.
Truebenbach displayed a bar graph showing that district accomplishment. “The city council and the community should be proud of this,” he said, holding up the graphic.
“It’s a testament to students and staff working hard and staying focused. I just wanted to lay the foundation there. You can feel good about that.” Truebenbach told the council that the Milaca district is outpacing most area schools and the state average in terms of its rate of growth.
Regarding the Nov. 5 election that will determine the fate of the proposed operating levy and bond referendum, Truebenbach said a key point to relay to the public is that the district is not asking for extras this time around.
“We are not asking for anything extravagant,” he told city leaders. “We are asking to maintain and reinvest in what we are currently doing. This is a list of basic asks.”
Truebenbach said Question 1 on the ballot, the operating levy, represents a tolerance level that the taxpayers said they would support. It’s less than last fall.
“We also have Question No. 2. It’s for $5.1 million for 15 years,” Truebenbach explained. “We are experiencing end-of-life issues with our roofs and windows,”
Some school roof sections date back to the 1980s and 1990s, as well 1999. “Flat school roofs have a life expectancy of 25 years,” Truebenbach said. “We’ve got major leaks. If you walk through any rainy day, you can see the buckets.”
Elementary building windows date back to 1961. “If you went to school in Milaca, you probably looked through those windows,” Truebenbach told the council.
“Those are two questions that are going to be asked,” Truebenbach said. “The operating levy is a 10-year commitment and the bond referendum is a 15-year commitment. They are not contingent on each other, and can pass or fail independently. We are hoping to get a lot of people out on Nov. 5 to vote.”
According to Truebenbach, in the last special election, only 31% of Milaca district parents voted.
During his council presentation, Truebenbach recalled a comment made by Mayor Pete Pedersen last fall regarding the need to fund education.
“Mayor Pete, you said a strong community needs a strong school. And vice versa,” Truebenbach said. “Keeping our roofs from leaking and maintaining our programs is what this election is about.”
Turning to the general subject of taxes and governmental budgets, Pedersen mentioned Mille Lacs County’s 8.9% preliminary levy increase for next year, the city’s proposed 2% increase, and the Milaca District’s preliminary tax levy increase of 3.9%.
“What I’ve found over the years, being on the council and as mayor, we always lower our levy, because we know the county is going to come in high,” Pedersen said. “I’m getting tired of doing that.”
Schools districts are in a unique place, Truebenbach explained, adding cities and counties can just raise taxes. A school district has to ask a community’s permission.
“We are asking to keep our kids dry [and safe] and maintain our programs,” Truebenbach said. “I can’t stand up here and tell you how to vote Nov. 5, but I can ask you to vote. We want to make sure the council is informed.”
Council Member Cory Petersen asked about what happens if the community votes against the ballot items.
Board Member Sara Larsen said last year, $1.2 million was removed from the budget, prompting teacher and paraprofessional cuts and reduced learning opportunities.
“If the learning levy doesn’t pass Nov. 5, there will be more teacher cuts and bigger class sizes,” she said. “It would be devastating to our school.”
Council Member Lindsee Larsen said Truebenbach and the school board had their work cut out for them regarding voter education.
“I think people just see a tax increase, and they don’t realize what could potentially happen,” Larsen said. “If people know class sizes will increase if they vote no, they will complain. The district can do something about that by getting more information out there. You need to let parents know their vote will count, because last time, most of the parents didn’t show up [at the polls].”
Truebenbach said he’s has been hitting Facebook with videos explaining the basics of the operating levy and bond referendum.
The district website has a separate information section dedicated to both questions, and residents should watch for additional school mailers by month’s end.
More information about the Nov. 5 operating levy and bond referendum will be published Oct. 27 in the Milaca district’s Tracks and Tales section of the free Town & Country newspaper, Truebenbach added.