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District 197 school board discusses failed referendum
Still unclear if requests will be on Nov. 4 ballot
The District 197 School Board is still unsure if it will put another referendum on the ballot in November, after the majority of voters rejected levy and bond requests in a special election this month.
Although district leaders anticipated an easy win May 6, the two-part referendum aimed at increasing technology funding and upgrading facilities and security measures at West St. Paul-Mendota Heights-Eagan Area Schools failed.
At its meeting May 19, the school board just scratched the surface in addressing how the district would take the loss, and decide what’s next.
Another crimp was added to the already crinkly discussion: a stadium at Henry Sibley High School in Mendota Heights. Community members pushed for the project prior to the May 6 election, and are now hoping the school board will make good on its promise to address the issue.
More than 400 people have signed a petition on change.org called “Relocate athletic stadium to Henry Sibley’s campus.”
Although most school board members said the idea was worth discussing, it was clear there wouldn’t be time to include the stadium on the general election ballot Nov. 4.
Superintendent Nancy Allen-Mastro tried to somewhat rein in the conversation, which ranged from waiting until next year for another referendum to folding in additional funding for a stadium.
She said the school board needs to conduct more analysis, before it makes a decision on its next steps.
“We just lost, and there’s a reason for that,” she said. “I want to offer up some caution. We didn’t have a close vote. ... We need to slow down a bit.”
The district must notify the county about the referendum in August, but Allen-Mastro said decisions may have to be made as early as June.
The school board covered a variety of options — and rhetoric — on how to respond to the referendum’s defeat.
Board member Stephanie Levine said the school’s operating budget, which comes from state and federal taxes, pays for staff, and that there’s no room in that for buildings or technology upgrades.
The district had received a grant to purchase iPads for students, but no longer has funding to update those devices or put more devices in more students’ hands.
The majority of school board members agreed the district shouldn’t wait on investing in technology to not only expand programming, but to simply maintain basic technology infrastructure that keeps the schools running.
“There is an urgency there,” Levine said. “The reality is, that’s what kids need today to learn. (Without technology), they will graduate Sibley behind their peers. If we don’t support them with technology, then shame on us.”
As far as security, Levine said she believes the district is “behind the times.”
District leaders have said research on early-learning suggests it boosts student performance later on, and a new facility would help the program expand. Board members discussed renting space to get by until the district could afford a separate early-learning center.
Board member John Chandler said renting a space may have to do, until the district can show the community that students do do better when they go through early-learning programs.
“Maybe we do have to take a wait-and-see approach,” he said.
Chandler added that alternative funding sources shouldn’t be ruled out.
“(We) can’t abandon private fundraising,” he said.
‘Students deserve excellence’
During a public comment period at the meeting, some residents told the school board that the district should work with the funding they have, saying more money doesn’t mean better results.
Mendota Heights resident John Fisher went as far as saying the information the district provided regarding the referendum was “little more than propaganda,” and that the superintendent offered “veiled threats of dire consequences,” in the case that the levy and bond weren’t successful.
He said the referendum didn’t fail because of low voter turnout, but because the district didn’t have the true pulse of the public.
“You were not listening to the community,” Fisher said at the meeting. “(The voters) don’t like to be threatened, and the people who elected you resented it.”
Others encouraged the school board to go back to the voters with the same requests in the general election, saying investment is necessary to provide excellence in education.
Eagan resident Liz Suchy said early learning has greatly impacted her sons, who’ve struggled with speech. She said the school board should continue to pursue increased funding for the program to “allow the program to expand.”
“Let’s get ‘er done,” she said.
Kaitlyn Roby can be reached at 651-748-7815 and firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her at twitter.com/KRobyNews.
Effect of defeat
In the May 6 election, the district asked voters to:
• Renew and increase the school district’s designated technology tax levy to $1.7 million annually for 10 years, as the current $490,000 annual levy will expire this year.
• Establish an $11.2 million building bond for an early-learning center and security upgrades.
Fifty-three percent of voters rejected the technology levy, and 54 percent denied the building bond.
The school board still has to decide if its going to take the loss and try again next year, or reboot or modify the referendum in this year’s general election.
With the failure, the district’s set to lose $490,000 in current levy funding, and expects more delays in upgrading computers and other devices. The so-called “defeat” may also hamper learning in technology, district leaders say.
The district hoped the building bond would alleviate some overcrowding issues with a new early-learning center.