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Risk element present in Stillwater school levy

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news Woodbury, 55125
Woodbury Bulletin
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Woodbury Minnesota 8420 City Centre Drive 55125

The prospect of budget cuts may be all too familiar for District 834, but that is exactly what the district will be faced with if its referendum request fails this November.

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District 834 will be seeking both a levy renewal of $11 million and a levy increase of $5.2 million on the Nov. 5 ballot.

The levy would equate to $1,536.47 annually per student.

“Are we going to move forward as a school district or are we going to move backwards,” School Board Member Tom Lehmann said Oct. 21 during a public meeting at Oak-Land Junior High.

District 834 encompasses a portion of Woodbury as well as all of Afton.

Even though the district is seeking a renewal and an increase, both requests will fall under one question.

If the request passes, District 834 residents would see an increase of $14 per month on a $250,000 home.

The $5.2 million increase, which would be in effect for eight years, reflects a 5 percent increase to the district’s budget.

“We were very careful not to ask for too much and not enough,” Superintendent Corey Lunn said.

In 2011 District 834 had a levy request fail, which resulted in the district cutting more than $6 million from its budget.

District 834 has had a flat levy for the past 10 years.

“The costs continued to go up while our revenue stayed flat,” Lunn said. “If we wanted to do nothing different and still cut every year, a renewal would be fine.”

With a new levy …

Lunn said the district opted to only have one question on the ballot because the District 834 School Board felt it would be disingenuous if the renewal passed, but the increase failed.

“Even with a renewal, we would still be cutting and we would need another levy request in the future,” he said.

The levy dollars that the district is requesting would be divided into three primary areas – 82 percent would go toward continued support for current programs, minimizing budget cuts and providing financial stability; 15 percent would go toward implementing the district’s strategic plan and 3 percent would be allocated to school safety and technology upgrades.

Without a new levy ...

If the referendum should fail, District 834 would be tasked with cutting a minimum of $11 million from its operating budget.

“If we were to lose $11 million, all of the programs and services that make our school great would be lost,” Lunn said. “The low hanging fruit is gone, so the cuts will be significant – we’re all out of other options.”

Earlier this year, School Board approved a list of 105 specific budget cuts that would occur in the levy request should fail.

The budget cuts would include: raising class sizes by reducing as many as 50 teachers; implementing a four-day school week; reducing band, orchestra and vocal music; and restructuring or closing an elementary school.

“It is not a scare tactic,” Lehmann said, “it is not a bluff.”

Community support

Lunn said the biggest obstacle District 834 will face this November is trying to sell the need for a levy to the community as a whole, since only about a third of voters have children in schools.

“The biggest challenge with a levy is that three-quarters of your community doesn’t see the immediate benefit of funding schools,” he said.

Lunn said the district has spent the last 18 months trying to inform the community of what they are buying when they contribute to a school’s levy.

“We’ve tried to point out that communities and school districts are connected,” he said. “School districts resemble their community – strong communities with strong school districts go hand and hand.”

Lunn said having a strong school district within a community contributes to: higher property values, having a highly skilled workforce, having a sense of community, less dependency on social services and stronger families.

Lunn said he is hopeful voters have recognized District 834’s efforts to save money.

“We’re not the same school district we were two years ago; we’re a lot smarter,” he said. “We like to say we’re the lean, mean fighting machine because we have really tightened our belts and saved a lot of money – we’re much more efficient.

“If there’s any silver lining from what happened two years ago, that’s it.”

 

More information on the District 834 referendum can be found on the district’s website, www.stillwater.k12.mn.us.

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Amber Kispert-Smith
Amber Kispert-Smith has been the schools and Afton reporter at the Woodbury Bulletin since 2008. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Minnesota. She previously worked as a reporter for Press Publications in White Bear Lake.
(651) 702-0976
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