Schools face big financial - and voter -- challengeThe sequence was virtually seamless: Teachers union approves contract. Red Wing School Board signs off. Union leaders follow suit. Handshakes between both groups. That settled, it was back to work — where board members could finally have the big talk. Topic: Referendum.
By: Mike Longaecker, The Republican Eagle
The sequence was virtually seamless: Teachers union approves contract.
Red Wing School Board signs off. Union leaders follow suit. Handshakes between both groups.
That settled, it was back to work — where board members could finally have the big talk. Topic: Referendum.
It was a subject that was virtually taboo for months, and heavily contingent upon a teachers contract settlement. If the contract impasse would have extended into the coming weeks or months, the district’s financial picture would have remained obscured and, school officials suspected, may have soured public sentiment.
“I thought that was critical to the whole referendum picture,” School Board member Stephen O’Keefe said of the contract accord. “That was a huge piece.”
Now he and other board members must decide how to make what’s often considered one of the toughest sells among local Minnesota governments: convincing taxpayers to raise property taxes on themselves by helping to finance public schools.
If the district does not pass a new five-year referendum by December, the current one will expire. That would create a funding hole of about $2.1 million, according to district figures.
“The cuts would be incredible then,” Supt. Stan Slessor said. “It’s a crucial issue for us.”
As it stands, Slessor is preparing for more funding cuts this year — continued fallout from a 2006 budgeting error that saw 10 school district jobs eliminated last year and the district fall into statutory operating debt.
O’Keefe — who, with his wife led the 2003 Vote Yes committee before he joined the School Board in 2006 — said he doesn’t like the prospects a failed referendum might present.
“What my fear is, is any future cuts are going to impact the classroom. I don’t think there’s any way around it,” he said.
So School Board members wasted no time Monday staking out plans for a referendum.
They now expect to have a preliminary analysis ready for review in early February.
Depending on how fast the process moves, voters could have their first say by late spring or early summer. Slessor and O’Keefe said they would support a plan that makes an early attempt to pass a referendum.
So did School Board member Mitch Boldt.
“I think going in May is the proper thing to do,” he said at Monday’s retreat.
Officials will likely also learn in February about how many dollars per pupil the referendum will propose. The current amount is $600 — a figure O’Keefe said needs to increase.
“Hopefully, people see that as a good investment,” he said.
Despite the challenges, one thing is giving Red Wing school officials hope. Exactly two-thirds of every Minnesota district that sought a referendum last year saw it pass. Among those were districts in Lake City, Cannon Falls, Kenyon-Wanamingo and Prescott.
That keeps expectations high, Slessor said.
“I think it does,” he said, adding that a funding shift from the state to local governments has decreased.
“I think the public is becoming more aware of that issue.”
Referendums in Red Wing have had a spotty history in the past decade or so.
After failing in 1998, supporters passed a referendum in 2000. Three attempts in 2002 failed before voters narrowly passed the current referendum in 2003.
Slessor said he knows what lies ahead.
“A massive amount of work,” he said. “But it’s good work.”