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District 197 school board feels time squeeze in ballot decision
New stadium added to list of considerations
Time is running out for the School District 197 board members to decide whether or not to bring a referendum to the voters this fall, after taking a hard loss in May’s special election.
If the board decides to wait until 2015 — or if the levies were to fail in the general election Nov. 4 — the West St. Paul-Mendota Heights-Eagan Area Schools would experience a “gap year,” as its current technology levy expires this year. The district would have to hold off on security upgrades and be forced to dip into its reserves for $770,000 to simply maintain its technological infrastructure and replace failed tech equipment, a fix that Superintendent Nancy Allen-Mastro said wouldn’t hold longer than a year.
“That is in no way possible to sustain,” she said. “That is an emergency approach.”
According to Allen-Mastro, the school board has to decide in August when the financial fate of the district will go to the voters and what will be included in the referendum.
What’s on the table
At the work session July 21, staff recommended the school board pursue a proactive approach to sustain and replace technology, but reduced the amount of property-tax money it would ask from voters by $500,000 to $1.2 million, compared to the $1.7 million in the May referendum.
Historically, the district’s approach to technology has been “drive it until it doesn’t drive,” said Dave Sandum, technology director. He said the wireless internet system is starting to fail, and the iPads bought through a grant are at the “end of their life.”
Although the recommendation nixed the $7.5 million to build an early learning center that was included in the levies struck down this spring, it stayed steady on security, including $3.2 million to renovate the entrances, add cameras and increase lock-down capabilities at the middle and high schools.
An athletic stadium committee made up of mostly supporters of the project presented its preliminary plan for a 2,100-seat, $4.5 million stadium at Henry Sibley High School in Mendota Heights to replace Charles Matson Field in West St. Paul. The field, bleachers and team room would go behind the school between the tennis courts and the softball fields.
Adding yet another consideration to the school board’s crowded plate: West St. Paul’s ice arena has an outdated refrigeration system, and the city is asking for the district’s help to replace it. It’s heavily used by the district’s hockey program.
According to current estimates, the district would put up $377,000 to $555,333 for the project, potentially sharing the cost with the state, West St. Paul and Mendota Heights. The total cost of the project could be up to $1.87 million.
Timing is everything
The majority of the school board voiced support of a November referendum, when there would most likely be high voter turnout.
“Now’s the time for us to be bold and stand firm to our commitment,” board member John Chandler said. “Let’s put it on the fall ballot.”
But as most in the room at the work session agreed there was an overall struggle communicating information to constituents prior to the special election, Allen-Mastro offered a strong word of caution in going back to the voters too soon.
“I don’t want the public to speak until they really understand why we’re asking for these resources,” she said.
In the minority, board chair Mark Spurr said he was discouraged by the poll numbers from a recent survey of 400 district residents, which suggested that the district doesn’t have the support it needs to pass any of the initiatives.
“We all believe in what we’re doing, but I don’t see us having the horsepower,” he said. “If we’re going to go out, we’ve got to feel confident we’re going to win.”
The school board is set to meet Aug. 4 with public comments at 6 p.m. at Mendota Heights City Hall, and a business meeting at 7 p.m. at the Mendota Heights council chambers. Also scheduled is a work session/meeting at 5 p.m. Aug. 18 at Henry Sibley High School, room A-241.
Allen-Mastro said the school board also could call a special meeting.
Although it’s a tight timeline, board member Matthew Klein said he would rather go for it all this fall.
“Nothing can be accomplished until our schools are secure. No test scores can be improved until our achievement-gap students enter kindergarten prepared to read and write. None of our graduates will be career-ready if they are not adept in a digital curriculum,” he said. “And yes, a stadium will drive excellence. It builds a community and a unity that this district sorely lacks.”
Kaitlyn Roby can be reached at 651-748-7815 and firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her at twitter.com/KRobyNews.
Residents weigh in
Following the district referendum failure this spring, Superintendent Nancy Allen-Mastro said constituents are even more skeptical this time around and are asking more questions.
Mendota Heights resident John Fisher is among a handful of voters who have spoken out against the referendum in public forums and have requested more information about the long-term impact on property taxes.
“They’ve got an uphill battle to convince a number of us, myself included, that they don’t have sufficient funds,” he said in a phone interview. “We’re not just going to rubber stamp another excess levy.”
Fisher added that he and his peers, like most in the community, want test scores to go up.
“We’re not just a group of people that are saying we don’t want any tax increases. We do want to raise issues. We do want to raise questions, and we do want to get answers to those questions,” Fisher said. “It’s not a we-win, you-lose proposition. Let’s figure out ways to win together.”
Some school board members argued the stadium supporters’ energy could fuel a successful campaign.
Dave Schilling, a member of the stadium advisory committee, has watched his son use an iPad to learn Spanish. Much different than the flashcards Schilling remembers, his son is able to hear the word in Spanish, relate it to pictures and use the touchscreen in interactive exercises.
Like the technology initiatives that go way beyond chalkboards and textbooks, Schilling argues a new stadium would instill pride in the district and keep kids at public schools.
“We will have a concerted effort to not say we have four separate things we have to invest in, but we have one thing to invest in and that’s our kids,” he said.
He said he was disappointed to hear some suggest waiting until next year, especially after the school board already postponed the stadium discussion several months and promised to address it after the special election.
“It feels like it’s kicking the can down the road again,” he said in a phone interview. “I would love this to be on the ballot this fall, and I would love to hear from our community about what we want to be.”