The ISD 728 School Board unanimously approved a request to seek more local tax dollars to support educational programs and address building maintenance and growing enrollment needs at its regular meeting Monday, June 24. If voters approve the requests, schools throughout the district in Elk River, Otsego, Rogers and Zimmerman would all see improvements.
The move to place two questions on a November 5, 2019 ballot would solve a pair of problems facing the district. The first question would increase the district’s operating levy, providing more predictable and stable funding for the next 10 years, while adding support and resources for students throughout the district. If approved by voters, funding would support such things as academic support for struggling students, teaching staff to maintain or lower class sizes when possible, student mental health support, updated curriculum and other classroom materials (currently replaced every 10+ years), and more opportunities for students to work with local businesses (i.e. work experiences, apprenticeships, etc.). The second item, a bonding request that is contingent on the operating levy question passing first, would address a growing space crunch throughout ISD 728, provide more flexible learning spaces districtwide and address facility inequities at the high schools.
While it isn’t easy to turn to local taxpayers for more assistance, ISD 728 School Board Chair Shane Steinbrecher said a lot of research and planning – more than 18 months in the making – has gone into the District’s referendum proposal. The levy and bond questions address the 1-2 punch the District faces heading into the next decade.
“Simply put, levies are for learning, bonds are for building,” Steinbrecher said. “This referendum addresses the basic needs of the District, while supporting the new, community-developed Strategic Plan. The proposal also addresses enrollment growth and building needs in a smart, fiscally responsible way.”
The District estimates that if both Question 1 and 2 (levy and bond) pass, taxes on the average home ($250,000 value) would increase approximately $32 per month. The voter-approved funding would be used to support students throughout the District at every school.
“We are grateful for the support we’ve seen from the school board and the community throughout this process,” said Superintendent Dan Bittman. “Between our Strategic Plan process and the initial discussions around a possible referendum, staff has spent much time listening to thousands of residents, city, county, and business leaders, as well as members of the various Chambers of Commerce. We’re confident this will address many of the budget and building needs across the district, while benefiting students at every site.”
Despite award-winning financial management and a growing population, ISD 728 is facing funding challenges due to several factors. Increases in education funding have been dwarfed by inflation over the last decade, and special education funding hasn’t matched the mandates put in place by state and federal guidelines. The district has cut more than $20 million in seven years in order to approve balanced budgets each spring, leading to cuts in programming, limiting resources to replace outdated curriculum, less progress on much-needed building improvements, and, ultimately, staffing decreases that contribute to larger class sizes.
“If ISD 728 was fully funded – meaning if state funding had matched the rate of inflation over the past 15 years or if ISD 728 was fully reimbursed for special education costs – it would have received enough money to cover the shortfall of $10.2 million it is facing for the 2019-2020 school year,” said Cory Franson, ISD 728 Director of Community Engagement. “We’ve spent many hours at the Capitol in St. Paul trying to get funding changed to cover some of these shortfalls. And while we appreciate the legislature’s decision to increase education funding this year, the district would need a 12 percent increase to close our gaps. The changes approved this year fall short of that.”
Referendum Question One (Levy) would address the most significant operational issues and would provide more predictable and stable funding. However, more needs to be done to protect the community’s investment of current facilities (i.e. safety and security, roofs, parking lots, heating systems, etc.), create equity amongst the district’s schools, and to address the district’s continued growth. More than 2,000 students will join ISD 728 schools over the next five to eight years, according to a former state demographer’s estimate. That’s a good problem to have, Bittman said, but the District is facing a facilities crunch to accommodate the hundreds of new families moving to the district’s communities.
“While the school district will continue to do everything it can to maximize current space it simply will not be enough to house our children,” Bittman said. “Creating additional classroom space takes two to three years from approval to opening, so, the time is now. Question Number Two (Bond) would address those needs.”
ISD 728 will prepare informational materials and hold community sessions to help inform residents of the requests leading up to the November 5 vote.
“The important thing is to support our children, community values and the priorities we identified with our friends and neighbors throughout our Strategic Planning process,” Bittman said. “We think this is a responsible way to support the things our families love about our district.”