Over the past 25 years, St. Michael and Albertville voters have headed to polls to support everything from new elementary schools and high schools to – most recently – expansions to kindergarten and high school buildings along with activity areas.
This time, there won’t be a “concrete” result from the school district’s latest ask – a stand-alone operating levy that will, if all goes as planned, lift the school district from one of the state’s bottom rung in terms of funding to a more stable, locally supported district.
“This is a problem that has truly been brewing for a while,” said Dr. Ann-Marie Foucault of the district’s inadequate funding compared to other districts of its size. “For years, we’ve told our families that our success is coming in spite of the fact we were at or near the bottom when it comes to school districts and state funding. We were proud that we were doing so well – our kids consistently achieve among the tops in the state in academics and activities – with so little. After all, that’s kind of what our community and our families pride themselves in – being able to do more with less. But, it reaches a point where it’s not sustainable. And we started to see that last year.”
A combination of slow growth (hold on, we’ll get to that in a minute) and the COVID-19 pandemic led to mass layoffs in STMA last year. Most were at the middle school and high school level. And the loss of more than 40 professionals – many full-time teachers – can now be felt around the district. All told, the district has let go nearly 70 teachers and staff since 2019.
“We are truly at a breaking point,” said Keith Cornell, STMA High School teacher and activities director. “At some point – even as a family on a budget – you realize you can’t keep doing what you’re doing with the amount of money coming in. Everyone has probably been there. We are there. Activities budgets. Classrooms. Up and down the list – you’re realizing you can’t cut a
ny more without making some major changes. I’m really proud of our community, and I’m proud of where I work. I hope we can get this done.”
Community members have, loudly, disagreed. Some point to the referendum in 2017 that paved the way for a domed stadium and hockey arena as “extravagant” spending – yet, bonding and levies are two different things. Bonds are for buildings. Levies are for curriculum and programming. And a 10-year operating levy, as proposed by the STMA School Board, provides stability – and allows the district to get back to where it was before a pandemic that cost the district an estimated $7 million in extra spending exacerbated an already growing problem.
“Those who know me know that I’m not one to go around asking for people to raise my taxes,” said school board member Tim Lewis, who serves as the treasurer, stated recently. “These are tough decisions we never planned to make. We are looking at $6 million to $7 million more in cuts if this were to fail. That’s not fear tactics. That’s fact.”
Cuts would hit activities and curriculum, as well as any additional classroom cuts that could be made. Class sizes could jump, Foucault said, and activities for the two middle schools and STMA High School would take a major hit, including freshmen and sophomore teams.
“The idea that we’re hiding something is just not true,” Lewis added. “A lot of districts are in the same situation.”
However, Foucault added, many of them already have local levies. STMA has never had an operating levy.
What about all the growth the district is seeing, you ask?
It’s both a blessing – and a curse. STMA struggles with local funding because it is, primarily, a bedroom community. Additional housing is good, but STMA needs commercial growth to fortify a tax base that is primarily reliant on home developments. And with housing grinding to a halt from 2008 until about 2014, STMA continued to sink in local funding.
So, while housing is rebounding, a couple of things are happening:
- School funding in Minnesota has never kept up with the inflationary costs of educating children – from transportation to special education. Some of this is due to federal funding formulas (unfunded special education mandates, for example), other factors are at the state level (like increases under the rate of inflation approved by the Legislature).
- Housing – while good – also has it paradox. For example, a family that moved to STMA and built its home in 2001 – the last housing boom – has probably seen its children graduate from the school system by now. Yet, they’re still here. Still paying taxes. No students, though, means STMA schools aren’t getting that $8,000 (estimated) per pupil payment from the state. So the Joneses, who had been bringing in $16,000 to STMA schools by sending their two students there, are now bringing in $0 beyond their standard property tax bill.
- Not all housing brings in new students – the latest wave of detached villas, townhomes and even apartments and retirement communities brings in less students than expected.
- STMA is pushing through the largest – according to census and demographer estimates – classes in history, including the Class of 2025 and 2027. The disparity between those classes eventually graduating and the number of students into the district is a net loss. So, for every 100 students – that’s a loss of $800,000.
School leaders do understand the difficulty – everyone else is ALSO recovering from the pandemic, including small business owners and those who work for businesses that might have been shut down during 2020. The cost of many goods and services are also rising as the economy attempts to rebound. And, a once young community is now getting older, according to the 2020 Census.
“We understand that this is a big ask,” Foucault said. “And the timing is difficult. Yet, when you ask any family, or any Realtor, why they recommend this area – it’s for our schools. STMA has a tradition of excellence. This will really help us continue that tradition into the future.”
Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to correct language stating that this was the first, stand-alone operating levy vote, which is unclear. STMA has had other levy votes, but legislation and funding changes have rolled those into general funding and were not, in effect, operations votes under current statute. That would change with this election. Our apologies if the article did not make this clear.