The Eastern Carver County School District (District 112) School Board has begun weighing potential referendum questions for this fall’s ballot. This would be the first ballot question since 2011’s failed technology levy, as the District passed on putting any questions on the 2012 ballot.
It’s a virtual certainty that there will be one referendum question on the ballot, as two operating levies representing $8.7 million in annual funding (or just under 10% of the District’s general fund) expire after the 2013-14 school year, meaning that they must be extended this year, or significant cuts would be required.
But it’s the potential for other questions is where it gets interesting. As noted in this week’s Chaska Herald, the District has surveyed residents on a number of possible referendums in recent months, including:
- A $2.3 million technology levy (54% support/strongly support in the survey)
- School security facility improvements (64%)
- Dedicated facility for early childhood education (55%)
- Purchase land for a new elementary school in Chaska or Carver (46%)
- New swimming pool (38%)
- Theater facility at Chaska High School (38%)
- Construction of a domed athletic facility (38%)
- New soccer/lacrosse fields (28%)
The last four items on the above list are dead on arrival. And, despite the favorable survey results for the technology levy, going back to that well again may not prove to be wise. That leaves us with three items for consideration, and let’s look at the case for and against each of them:
School security facility improvements: FOR: These changes would largely update some of the older schools in the District to reconfigure and update entrances and other security features. An example of such a change would be at Jonathan Elementary, where the front entrance of the school would be changed to funnel visitors through the office instead of into the school’s main floor hallway. AGAINST: Since Newtown, District schools have made staffing adjustments as required to help monitor entrances that are antiquated in their design. Could these processes be continued less expensively than making facility upgrades?
Dedicated facility for early childhood education: FOR: Today, early childhood programs are spread across multiple facilities in the District (including Chaska High School and Bluff Creek and Chanhassen Elementary Schools). The District’s E-8 Task Force has been looking at different options for siting early childhood programs, but the enrollment crunch at the elementary schools and the possible changes in high school boundaries puts these programs in the lurch. A dedicated facility would provide stability for these programs, which could increase utilization and improve efficiency (staff today frequently has to travel between buildings). AGAINST: Having multiple locations for early childhood programs can also be an advantage, as it can also drive enrollment. A Chanhassen resident, for instance, may not be interested in driving their child westward in the morning to a centralized facility but could take advantage of programs currently in Chanhassen elementary schools. Also, if a new elementary school is built, might existing space (like the Kindergarten Center) be adapted instead? This is also a potentially expensive project, depending on location and size.
Purchase land for a new elementary school in Chaska or Carver: A new elementary school in the western portion of the District is inevitable at this point, based on the sudden burst of new residential development in Southwest Chaska, Carver, and Victoria this year as well as legislative actions like the move to universal all-day kindergarten. And while the District can likely muddle along with the current facilities for three to five more years, the right time to buy land for a new school may be now. Why? Historically low interest rates and low property values. Waiting to buy the land until the school must be constructed could cost District taxpayers millions in increased expense and interest. It’s also fairly standard practice to secure land before securing the funding for construction, so as not to be delayed when you actually do need to build the school. For instance, the District acquired the future Chanhassen High School property via a levy passed in 2004 — five years and an additional referendum before the building was built and opened. AGAINST: Why spend a significant amount of money on buying land until it is absolutely necessary to do so?
It’s unlikely, of course, that District would put all three of these items on the ballot in addition to the operating levy renewal. How should the School Board and Superintendent Jim Bauck proceed, then?
The reality is that none of the referendum questions is likely to succeed without a coordinated and coherent presentation of the facts behind the need for the referendum. The District failed on that count with the 2011 technology levy. From that perspective, the security upgrades have the easiest story to sell.
But if we’re truly interested in financial responsibility, the notion of buying land for the new elementary school needs to be on the table as well. Being able to acquire land now at favorable terms makes sense, since we know that the school will need to be constructed at some point in the short- to medium-term.
Past School Boards have been very cautious about putting referendum questions on the ballot, even those that do show majority support. Even though the concept of buying land for a new elementary school shows mixed support in the survey, it may well be the right thing to do. And the District should fight for doing the right thing by its citizens and taxpayers.
[Photo is Family Feud host Richard Dawson, from back in the day.]