School district hopes voters understand referendum needsWith just more than a week before the election, Red Wing School District officials are working to make sure voters know about the upcoming operating referendum and capital bonds votes that will appear on their ballots. Still, they’re questioning whether residents actually understand the district’s needs.
By: Sarah Gorvin, The Republican Eagle
With just more than a week before the election, Red Wing School District officials are working to make sure voters know about the upcoming operating referendum and capital bonds votes that will appear on their ballots. Still, they’re questioning whether residents actually understand the district’s needs.
“I have absolutely no really solid feel for what’s going to happen,” school Board Chairman Mitch Boldt said Wednesday. “We can have open meetings; you just don’t see the volume of people to make me feel comfortable that (voters) have adequate information.”
“Some people are well informed and others are not,” Supt. Karsten Anderson echoed. “There’s so many different pockets of people.”
District officials began talking about renewing the operating referendum — which will expire at the end of 2013 — last October. They also began looking at a facilities bond to take care of deferred maintenance and space issues around the same time.
In August, the School Board decided to put three questions to popular vote.
The first question asks voters to renew the district’s expiring operating levy at its current rate for the next five years, extending the referendum to 2019.
The second question asks voters to approve a facilities bond of just more than $33 million to expand Burnside Elementary School to accommodate all classes from kindergarten through grade 4, turn Sunnyside Elementary School into a pre-kindergarten center and address maintenance and classroom configuration in all buildings.
The third question asks voters to approve a $4.6 million bond to improve and update the district’s athletic facilities.
@Sub heads:Question 1 vital
@Normal1: Both Supt. Karsten Anderson and Boldt said all three questions on the ballot are important to the district. However, without the operating referendum passing, the district would face cuts.
“The School Board and district believe that the operating levy is the most important question on the ballot,” Anderson said.
That is why both of the facilities bond questions are contingent on the operating referendum passing.
“One has to pass before two or three could pass,” Finance Director Brad Johnson said.
Should the operating referendum not pass, the district would have to function with about $4 million less — or 15 percent — in its general fund each year.
To put that in perspective, Johnson said $4 million is double the district’s yearly transportation budget, six times the athletic budget or pays the salaries of 65 teachers, which is about a third of the district’s teacher workforce.
Passage of Questions 2 and 3 would allow the district to address — in addition to space issues — a laundry list of deferred maintenance. That includes replacing the high school roof, which was only supposed to last 10 years but has been place for 17.
“The other questions are important because we do have capacity issues at the elementary schools and deferred maintenance that we need to address,” Anderson said.
“There’s no ifs ands or buts about the fact that we need space in the district,” Boldt added.
Both Questions 2 and 3 state that by voting yes, “you are voting for a property tax increase.” This is language that must legally be included on the ballot.
However, according to Johnson, taxes won’t actually increase with the passing of the first two questions. Because some of the district’s debt service will expire this year, taxes will actually go down. If only Questions 1 and 2 pass, the overall levy will drop 3.1 percent for 2013.
Only with Question 3 passing would property taxes actually go up. Johnson said the increase would mean that a homeowner with a house valued at $200,000 would pay about $23 more a year in taxes.
So far, the district has held a number of community meetings in the summer, discussed the referendums at its televised board meetings and sent out multiple mailings explaining the facts to all residents in the district.
Still, the Anderson and Boldt said they’re not positive that voters fully understand the ballot questions or the district’s financial, space and maintenance issues.
“It’s incredibly difficult to gauge that,” Boldt said.
He added that the simplest way to tell if the district is on the right track with its requests is just to put it on the ballot.
“If the operating referendum doesn’t pass, that’s going to be a signal that we’ve got something wrong,” Boldt said. “Then we’ll need to go back and do more public meetings to find out what needs to change.”
That’s the main reason, Boldt said, that this is a good year to put the referendums on the ballot. If the operating referendum fails this year, the district will have next November to try again.
“To have a public vote is going to give an accurate read,” he said. “If it doesn’t support, it’s time to retrench. We’ll effectively have a year … to respond to what the public needs before the money runs out.”