The Stillwater Area School Board plans to ask voters in November to renew — and possibly increase — the school district’s operating levy over the next 10 years.
Also expected on the ballot: an ask for a 10-year, $4.7 million technology levy.
The school board will meet Aug. 12 to finalize how much it plans to ask of voters on Nov. 2.
The operating levy, originally passed in 2013, expires at the end of the school year. It accounts for about 10 percent of the district’s $114 million operating budget.
Without a levy in place, the district would have to reduce its annual budget by about $12 million — “which would be devastating,” said School Board Chairwoman Bev Petrie.
“The expenses for a school district are largely in people and salaries, so we would have to cut a lot of teachers,” she said. “If we have to cut essentially 10 percent of our budget, there’s really no way to do that by just shaving off a little bit here and a little bit there. You can’t really cut $12 million that way. You’re going to have to cut teachers, and when you cut teachers, what that means is a rise in class sizes.”
District officials said Thursday that more than 100 full-time staff, mostly teachers, would have to be cut if the operating levy isn’t passed; the district employs about 600 full- and part-time teachers.
District staff are proposing that the board ask voters to increase the operating levy by about $2.7 million per year, or about $390 per student, over 10 years.
If voters approve the technology levy and an increase to the operating levy, the tax impact on a $350,000 house — the average price of a house in the district — would be less than $11 a month, said Carissa Keister, district spokeswoman.
For decades, the district has counted on voter support to help bridge the gap in state and federal funding, which hasn’t kept pace with inflation, Petrie said. Even with the current levy in place, the district has had to make budget cuts — about $7 million total — in three of the past eight years, she said.
Superintendent Malinda Lansfeldt told board members at a board workshop last month that it is “absolutely critical and necessary” that the operating levy be replaced. “We need more than just the renewal for our programming for our kids,” she said.
A June survey commissioned by district officials showed that 57 percent of voters would be willing to accept a $140 increase in property taxes over the next 10 years to fund the requests. That amount, Lansfeldt said, appeared to be the “sweet spot.”
But Stillwater resident Sandi Hayner questioned the “quite favorable” results of the survey during the July 22 workshop.
“The district was not honest the last time you came to us with a bond,” Hayner said, referring to the board’s decision in 2016 to close three elementary schools in the northern part of the district, just a year after voters narrowly approved a $97.5 million bond request. “You betrayed people. You’re doing it now. It’s an issue of trust.”
Renewals for school district operating levies have had a 100 percent passage rate over the past 10 years in Minnesota, said Greg Abbott, communications director of the Minnesota School Boards Association.
“The big selling point is the districts are just renewing what they had, they’re not increasing taxes,” Abbott said. “There is a lot of local support for operating levies because they know that money goes right to the classroom.”
Technology levies have about a 50 percent passage rate statewide, but they are “much more likely to pass in the metro area,” he said. Going to school and working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic made it clear just how much technology upgrades are needed, he said.
Petrie, who helped spearhead the district’s successful 2007 levy campaign, said she was encouraged by the results of the June survey. The 2013 operating levy passed with 63 percent in favor.
“I know that there has been a lot of division in this community over the past few years, so I was just very pleased to see that the community seems to be coming together in support of our local schools,” she said. “Everyone knows that good local schools support a good community. If we are known as a good school district, then people are going to want to come here and buy houses.”
District officials say Stillwater is one of only a handful of metro school districts without a dedicated source of funding for technology.
“I think that over the past year, we realized just what a gap that is … in our ability to serve students the way they need to be served,” Petrie said. “There were a lot of districts that, frankly, did the whole distance learning better than we did because we just didn’t have the technology in place to be able to do it as well as they did.”
Revenue from the tech levy would be used for computer equipment for students, teacher laptop replacements, classroom-technology upgrades, tech support and network security, Keister said.
Like many other school districts, Stillwater saw its enrollment decline during the COVID-19 pandemic. The district lost about 300 students, she said. “We just don’t know what the consequences of the pandemic will be,” she said. “We know that some of those students will come back, but we don’t know how many.”
Still, she said, it is critical for the district to pass both levies.
“We wouldn’t put them in front of the community if we didn’t think that they were elements of funding that is going to help improve the educational experience for students, but, of course, it’s up to taxpayers whether that is something they are willing to say ‘yes’ to,” she said.