District 622 operating levy fails, along with technology levy

This homemade lawn sign seems to reflect the feelings of a majority of residents who cast ballots in the North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale School District levy vote. The referendum questions were voted down in the Nov. 3 election. (Linda Baumeister/Review)
This homemade lawn sign seems to reflect the feelings of a majority of residents who cast ballots in the North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale School District levy vote. The referendum questions were voted down in the Nov. 3 election. (Linda Baumeister/Review)

Across the state, voters approved at least one operating levy request in 47 districts on Election Day, for a passage rate of 90 percent.

According to the Minnesota School Boards Association, only five districts came out on the other side, including the North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale School District.

Despite a concerted campaign effort, well supported by new Superintendent Christine Osorio, the two-part levy referendum fell flat. Question No. 1 failed with 6,421 "no" votes (59.3 percent); and Question No. 2 failed with 6,314 "no" votes (58.9 percent).

A total of 10,836 voters, representing about 23 percent of the 46,378 registered voters in the district, cast a ballot.

Osorio points to low voter turnout, typical of an off-election year, as one of the biggest hurdles District 622 faced this time around.

"That's not the whole community voicing their thoughts and opinions," she said in a post-election interview. "We definitely would like to increase that participation. That would be the first lesson: to learn how to do a better job of that."

Without the additional levy funding, district officials now have to evaluate where budget cuts for the 2016-17 school year will come from.

"As a district, we are incredibly disappointed in yesterday's outcome, as this funding is critical to our ability to maintain educational programs and support the learning needs of all students," Osorio wrote in a letter to 622 families on Nov. 4.

Referendum recap

Question No. 1 sought an operating levy increase of $900 per student for maintaining class sizes, adding student support services — including English as a Second Language resources, special education support and accelerated learning opportunities — and expanding college and career pathways for students.

The district currently receives about $913 per student in local, state and federal tax revenues.

Question No. 2, which was contingent upon the first question passing, would have equipped the district with $3 million in technology funding for bandwidth and infrastructure improvements, as well as increased safety and security measures.

If voters had approved both levies, the average homeowner would have shouldered an additional $349 per year on their property-tax bill.

Budget cuts ahead

While voters approved the continuation of an existing operating levy in 2011, District 622 has not seen an increased operating levy in well over a decade. Unable to keep up with growing demands, the district has had to slash over $35 million from its budget since 2005.

"These cuts have been made across all departments, with a specific goal of keeping cuts removed from the classroom wherever possible," Ossario wrote to district families.

District officials say the deficit for next year is projected to fall between $2 and $4 million — a setback Osorio says will impact staff members as they aim to meet students' needs without adequate funding.

When it comes to per-pupil referendum funding, 622 currently ranks at the very bottom out of the 20 largest metro-area school districts. At the same time, 622 is one of the larger districts in terms of enrollment with more than 10,000 students.

Looking at total general fund revenue per pupil, however, District 622 ranked above five of these like-sized metro-area school districts in 2014.

According to the Minnesota Department of Education's 2014 data, District 622 logged $10,804 in general fund revenue per pupil. For comparison, St. Paul Public Schools came in at $13,859 per pupil and White Bear Lake Area Schools came in at $11,020 per pupil.

Regrouping

Moving forward, Osorio writes, the district will be hosting community conversations and a survey about the future of District 622.

Asked whether the district is considering placing a new levy referendum on the ballot next fall, she says conversations with the School Board and community members still need to take place before a decision is made.

When it appears back on the ballot, the new levy proposal will likely be shaped by the concerns of those who voted "no" this time around but aren't altogether opposed to paying more to support their schools.

"We'll certainly be gathering information from the community," Osorio says. "There may be a different way to go about this — different questions, a different dollar amount."

The next levy campaign will also seek to further engage voters who don't have school-aged children, she says, noting the school's vitality impacts the entire community. For instance, strong school systems are often associated with higher property values.

"I think we're just really going to try to learn from this experience, regroup, and make some decisions about next steps," she says.

Erin Hinrichs can be reached at 651-748-7814 and ehinrichs@lillienews.com. Follow her at twitter.com/EHinrichsNews.

 

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