For the first time since 1995, voters in the Eastern Carver County School District have defeated a referendum put forward by the School Board and Administration. Let’s dig in and try to figure out the key factors that led to the defeat of the referendum.
We’ll get the easy one out of the way first — the economy is lousy right now and this is a really bad time to be advocating for a tax increase. No further elaboration is required here. If you look at school referendums around the state, requests to renew existing levies did very well, while requests for additional funding fared much worse. Of the seven metro area technology referendums asking for new or increased amounts, four passed (Anoka-Hennepin, Edina, Mahtomedi, and Spring Lake Park) while three (District 112, Inver Grove Heights, and Stillwater) failed.
A second critical factor in the defeat of the referendum was the failure of the district to provide critical supporting information to voters. It took the District a couple of weeks after the School Board approved the referendum to get basic information on the District’s website. Detailed information showing specifically how the money would be spent came far too late in the process. Certainly, this information must have been available at the time the School Board was considering whether or not to put the referendum on the ballot.
Additionally, the district failed to articulate some of the complexities of school financing. That left the district in being forced to defensively respond to things like John Brunette’s letter to the editor as opposed to proactively explaining the factors that go into our school property taxes. After digging into the information and requesting data from the district, I felt there was a compelling case in favor of the referendum. But I can understand how some voters didn’t get the message.
The district clearly also needs to address that there is a substantial portion of the community that have real issues with some previous decisions that were made and wants to see substantive changes. They do not trust the district to make decisions in their families’ best interest. I’ve tried to point out, both here and at the Chaska Herald website, that the decision-makers who made those controversial decisions aren’t around any more, and it’s not entirely fair to blame the new Board (recall, that a majority of the Board was replaced just one year ago) and the new Superintendent for those decisions.
Nonetheless, this is a problem that needs to be dealt with. Most prominently among these issues are the real and perceived inequities between the two high schools. Voter turnout in Chaska was 20%, versus Chanhassen’s 13%. There’s clearly a reason for that. Anecdotally, there were a significant number of Chaska parents who indicated their “no” vote was designed to send a message to the district regarding these issues. Similarly, there were a number of Chaska parents energized to go to the polls to try and get funding to help close these gaps.
Another element is the perception (related to the above issue) that Chanhassen High School was either not needed and/or too luxurious. As for the “not needed” part, the numbers don’t lie there.
Between Chaska High School, Pioneer Ridge, and the two middle schools, secondary school capacity in the district was simply not sufficient. Perhaps the district could have limped along for a couple more years, but there was no way around adding more capacity. Lower grade levels show that increased enrollment is coming, and as the economy gets back on track, additional growth in the western part of the district will have the two high schools operating at higher capacities in a few years.
As for whether or not Chanhassen High School was built too expensively, opinions can differ on that. Recall, though, that voters approved the $92 million price-tag for that facility. It was not forced on to the taxpayers of the district by the School Board or the administration.
And regardless of your opinion on any of these issues, I would argue that it’s not productive to go back and re-litigate them. Sending a message by voting “no” on a referendum may make you feel good, but it doesn’t solve the problems the district faces.
There are other ways to hold school districts accountable other than just voting “no”. We can get engaged in the yearly budget process. We can get involved in our children’s classrooms. We can attend school board meetings and have discussions with the administration on critical issues.
Where do we go from here? How should the district respond to the challenges that lie ahead from a budget perspective — and more importantly, from a trust perspective? I’ve got some ideas, and I’ll be sharing them over the next few weeks.