Schools moving on referendum

by Paul Rignell

Contributing Writer

The Elk River Area School Board agreed June 23 to present $104 million in bond and levy questions before all district voters next Election Day.

Officials will enter the 2014-15 school year with intent to address space needs at Rogers High School and elsewhere in the southern end of the district, which has seen the steadiest growth for consecutive years. At minimum, the district is planning to build a third wing for classrooms at Rogers High School along with additions at two elementary schools. The new construction at the high school would increase the building’s design capacity by nearly half to make room for 1,750 students.

Those plans alone will raise taxes on all single-family home properties in District 728, starting with the year payable 2015, but officials say the tax increase generally would be lower with voter passage of two referendum questions in November.

In the first question, the district will ask voters to approve $6 million in operating levy dollars. That amount would include about $2 million for general operations of the new space at Rogers High School and elementary additions, $1 million for reducing class sizes elsewhere by adding teachers, and $3 million for expanding school technology.

Voters would need to approve those requests for the second question’s results to count. The second question will call for $98 million in bonding to support the new wing at Rogers High School and an additional K-5 school building in Otsego (in place of expansion at existing elementary schools).

Otsego also would get a middle school campus and an early childhood learning center. The Rogers and Zimmerman communities would get early childhood centers and high school auditoriums.

High school renovations in Elk River and Zimmerman would include classrooms specifically for physics and chemistry at Zimmerman, where the existing school was designed as a middle school. Athletic program additions would include a new wrestling room and more indoor court space at Elk River along with conversion of some grass fields to synthetic turf.

Officials estimate that with approval of both questions in November, annual school taxes would rise by $43 for a single-family lot valued at $250,000 (which is considered average for the district).

Annual school taxes actually would drop by an estimated $65 for a commercial or industrial property valued at $250,000. Those lots are affected differently by the alternative facilities levy that is now in place but would be removed with approval of both questions in November.

Without approval for those questions, officials would plan to implement and utilize maximum lease levies for funding construction at Rogers High School and two elementary schools. The state allows districts to issue lease levies without voter approval. A formula gives greater lease levy capacity to larger school districts based on their pupil unit numbers, and District 728 has been operating below its allotted capacity.

However, officials say that raising lease levies to meet needs in the Rogers and Otsego areas would add another $36 to school taxes for an average-valued home (for a total increase of $79) while increasing commercial and industrial taxes by $142 (for a $250,000 lot) rather than reducing them.

Other board action

Board members approved general and community service fund budgets, which are due to the state June 30, for 2014-15. The budgets were approved with $2.4 million in reductions.

The district is projecting revenues of roughly $134 million to include $109.4 million in general state aid, $18.36 million in local property taxes and $3.5 million in federal support. Elk River Area Schools would end the upcoming fiscal year with an increase in general fund reserves after projected expenses of $131.5 million including $75.7 million for salaries and wages, $27.5 million for employee benefits and $14.16 million for purchased services.

Board Member Jolene Jorgensen moved to transfer $600,000 from $9.9 million in undesignated fund reserves into the general fund to create new teaching posts for reduction of class sizes. The $600,000 is equal to an approximate increase in funding that the district will receive from the state. Executive Director of Business Services Greg Hein explained that as the latest contract with district teachers would give incoming teachers salary and benefit packages ranging from $60,000 to $65,000, the transfer would allow for up to 10 new teachers.

He further explained, however, that little more than 60 percent or about $370,000 of the $600,000 increase would be “permanent” money coming from a boost of 2 percent in regular state aid. The remaining $230,000 in new state aid will be “one-time” funding coming for teacher evaluation, Hein said.

Jorgensen’s budget amendment failed for lack of support from other board members.

Sue Farber said she would have been more inclined to support a board amendment for transferring only the new $370,000 in “permanent” money from reserves to the general fund.

Board members seemed to concur they would be open to moving dollars for creating new positions in a few months if those moves would be warranted by higher enrollment figures that will be clearer in the fall. “It’s easier to add (positions, than subtract),” Board Member Tony Walter said.

•The board voted to keep school meal prices steady from 2013-2014 for the coming year. That will keep individual breakfasts at $1.05 and lunch at $2.50 for elementary schools, and breakfast at $1.15 and lunch at $2.60 in the secondary buildings.

Board members said during a workshop June 16 that they were not interested in raising meal prices for 2014-2015 in light of changes and reductions that will be required for a la carte offerings in secondary buildings to keep in step with the federal Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act.

Farber asked if district food staff could direct the fall’s program changes to be promoted on individual school Web pages. Food Service Manager Julee Miller replied that she is establishing a communications plan with district marketing staff.

Miller added that the federal changes will prohibit school students from using some fundraisers that were popular in the past, such as sales of root beer floats during homecoming weeks or distribution of “candy-grams” near Valentine’s Day.

Farber shook her head and said, “That’s really getting down to the nitty-gritty of micromanaging.”

•Board members approved a land swap with the St. Michael-Albertville School District concerning a tract that Mattamy Homes is planning to develop in Otsego.

Each district currently holds claim to parts of the land, but the land swap would give the districts portions that would fit better geographically for both of them. Based on the developer’s early plans, District 728 would end up with a similar number of new homes.

The St. Michael-Albertville board had yet to vote on the matter when the Elk River board made its decision.

Commissioners from Wright County then would get six months for review.