Milaca Public Schools Superintendent Tim Truebenbach had good reason for having a little extra bounce in his step last Wednesday morning.
During a stroll through the high school halls, he came upon floral design, small engines and agriculture teacher Leann Pietrzak, who was headed in the opposite direction.
He was greeted with the following message: “It’s a great day.”
Band director Andrew Nelson expressed the same feeling in a different corridor a few steps later.
It was the sentiment of pretty much everyone involved with the Milaca School District when the public overwhelmingly passed both an operating levy and bonding referendum in the Tuesday, Nov. 5, election.
Question 1, the operating levy, received 1,454 yes votes (64%), while Question 2, the building bond, received 1,514 yes votes for a 67% victory.
“My thought was if we got over 1,000 yes votes, we’d be in good shape,” Truebenbach said. “When I got over to the machines and saw it was at about 1,200, and I thought ‘Oh, my goodness, this is going to go.’ And I then I saw the second question and it was even higher. I knew that one was probably the most palatable, because the building issues are things people can see. You can see the leaky roofs and things like that. I knew the second one had a positive vibe out there, but I was surprised by the margin of the first question.
“This is a real morale-boost,” he added. “People being told ‘no’ a few times in the past years, you start to wonder where we’re at in terms of priorities. This was a big confidence boost for us and shows we’re on a good path.”
The operating levy will provide the district with an additional $250.95 per student in funding and is applicable for the next 10 years. The bond referendum provides up to $5.1 million to improve school facilities, including career and technical education facilities and required capital maintenance projects including roofing, pool, windows and security.
“We were really excited about the result and thankful that the community stood behind the school in supporting what we needed,” school board member Rachelle Nelson said. “I think what was different is the board listened to what the community said they could afford and what they wanted. I think last year was maybe too much for the community at that time, but we revamped and found a package that was more palatable to what they thought was necessary. I think people could understand this was a real need and they could relate to that so they could help us get that done.”
Similar referendums around the state passed.
Sartell-St. Stephen’s operating levy and a new elementary school in the Sauk Rapids-Rice District also passed one year after being soundly defeated.
The Mora School District’s effort for facility improvements and a new high school, however, was narrowly defeated. That district asked a two-part question: $19.3 million for school facilities improvements and, if that was approved, another $39.8 million for a new high school. Question 1 was defeated by 66 votes (1,684-1,618), and Question 2 went down by 89 votes (1,696-1,607).
After Milaca’s previous attempt to pass a levy and bond failed, it was up to Truebenbach and the school board to determine what went wrong and what needed to change. The answer was better communication and educating the public.
The school’s website explained tax ramifications for each household along with videos from Truebenbach. He also hit the pavement the week before Election Day and left materials at 26 businesses about when and where to vote while explaining the issues.
“I was out at the businesses and they allowed me to place information in their waiting areas,” Truebenbach said. “In Milaca, to have that community support does so much for morale. My phone was blowing up with positive messages. It’s all the people that were out there doing stuff to get the information out that was key. We were out there communicating and answering questions.”
Though the margin of victory was substantial, Truebenbach did his best to contain his excitement until he knew the final results.
That plan hit a bit of a snag when the main counting machine went down around 6:30 p.m. While using the backup machine, the final results were delayed until around 9:20 p.m.
“There was a bit of a hiccup, so it took a while to get the numbers matched up,” Truebenbach said. “I’ve learned to be cautiously optimistic, but it was almost like ‘when is the other shoe going to drop?’ I hate to be that kind of person. But then when I knew it was going through, it was excitement and relief. Budgeting is hard enough to do, but I know we’ve got to make decisions and be fiscally responsible because enrollment is still declining.”
The passing means it’s time for administrators, school board and the buildings and grounds committee to put their heads together to move things forward. From a facilities standpoint, that means getting bids from contractors and deciding the timeline for repairs. Truebenbach hopes the bidding process is completed by the end of 2019.
The goal is for projects in the Career Technical Education area, roofing and window projects to be completed for the start of the 2020-21 school year.
On the education side, Truebenbach said this will allow the school to keep building momentum on recent student achievement progress.
“It’s going to allow us to maintain some of this momentum,” he said. “We have to be responsible with our dollars, and this will allow us to maintain many of those programs. But if we continue to see declining enrollment, we have to adjust accordingly and live within our means. We’re not at the proficiency levels where we want to be yet, but we’re outgrowing and outpacing many schools in the state.
“Generally speaking, we’re doing some good things. I’m seeing a lot of school spirit coming back and the kids are taking pride in the school. We’re trying to move things forward, and I think we’re starting to see some momentum.”