Looking at the capacity question of the 2019 Referendum (UPDATED)

Question 2 of the 2019 Eastern Carver County Schools Referendum is a request to spend $111.7 million on capital projects – the largest of which is $35 million on a new elementary school to built on district-owned land in southwest Chaska.

Opponents of the referendum have indicated that there is already enough capacity in our schools to handle the projected growth in our district, and that a new school is unnecessary. Let’s start our analysis by looking at the district’s actual capacity, rolling back the clock to before the 2015 referendum and seeing how that compares to today.

Capacity Over Time

“Program capacity” as defined here is the capacity of the school based on the current use of its space. So, as an example, an area used for special education purposes would have a lower program capacity than a similarly-sized area used for a typical classroom setting.

Historical program capacity by building

As you can see from the numbers, program capacity since the 2015 referendum has every level of the district. At the elementary level, La Academia and Kinder Academy have relocated from their previous locations at the then-Kindergarten Center and Bluff Creek elementary to the former Chaska Elementary building. Carver Elementary has opened, and additions created more capacity at Clover Ridge and Victoria (while allowing some common spaces to be reclaimed). Changes at the secondary level occurred as well, most notably Chaska High School reclaiming one of its houses which was previously being used for early childhood education.

Where are we at today from an enrollment perspective?

Current enrollment and capacity by building

Based on enrollment figures, there are about 185 open seats at the elementary level (excluding the specialized programs of La Academia and Kinder Academy), and comfortable capacity numbers at the middle and high school level. Which brings us to the projections for growth.

Under the district’s projections (done by consulting firm Davis Demographics), elementary school enrollment will top current elementary school capacity by the end of the 2020-21 school year and be nearly 800 students higher than current enrollment by 2024-25.

Even less optimistic estimates of growth (such as a somewhat discounted growth rate on the Davis projections or using the last five-year trend of just over 1% growth) show that the district will be over capacity at the elementary level in less than five years.

The bigger question

Opponents of the new school have pointed out there is significant capacity at the middle and high school levels. Why can’t we just move kids there, they ask? Even under the most optimistic projections of growth, the district would not risk being over capacity in total until nearly a decade from now.

Enrollment projections and capacity by school levelyellow cells indicate where enrollment is larger than capacity

Well, we’ve answered this question before. From 2012-2014, I worked on a district facilities task force that dealt with the same sort of question – how to deal with rapidly rising enrollment at the elementary level.

The task force produced three options for the School Board and senior administration to review.

The first option was called “Cram”. It involved not building any new schools but just redrawing elementary boundary lines to balance enrollment across schools. Class sizes would get progressively larger, but boundaries could be redrawn – yearly, if necessary — to spread the pain evenly.

The second option was called “Shuffle”. It too, involved not building any new schools, but instead solved the elementary school problem by shuffling kids – among the options looked at were moving some 5th graders to middle schools and moving some 8th graders to high schools.

The third option was “Build”. This was the option selected at the time, and after the 2015 referendum passed, Carver Elementary opened in 2017.

Most people probably don’t remember the public feedback around those three options, but as a member of the task force, I do.

The “Shuffle” solution, which referendum opponents seem to be favoring in some fashion, was broadly unpopular. It was even more unpopular if people discovered that it was their kids who were going to be “shuffled” as opposed to someone else’s kids. The reality is that it’s easy on a spreadsheet to shuffle kids and balance enrollments, but there are real world consequences to doing so.

Middle school buildings are not equipped today to deal with elementary school students. Even if there is classroom space, scheduling of common facilities is problematic. For instance, Chaska Middle School East struggles with physical education space during the 3+ months that the dome in not available during the school year and adding several sections of fifth graders to the mix wouldn’t make it any easier.

Other parents balked at their fifth graders riding the bus with eighth graders or having to share school start and end times with middle schoolers. In the end, most folks agreed that a “shuffle” plan was not the best answer for our kids, and the 2015 referendum to build a new school earned 69% of the vote.

I’m not telling you to vote “yes” here — that’s up to you. I’m just suggesting that the question of whether the elementary capacity is needed goes a lot deeper than just putting the numbers on a spreadsheet and seeing if Column B is less than Column A.

UPDATE (9/18):

I was alerted to some comments on Facebook by referendum opponents regarding this post, and just wanted to post some clarifications and additional comments.

  1. One of the complaints was that I did not include the current Family Learning Center (former Kindergarten Center) in the current elementary school capacity. Yes, it is true that we could choose to put elementary school students back into that facility. However, I don’t feel that would be prudent. That building is lacking two critical components: a gymnasium and a kitchen. It is better suited to its current use housing early childhood and preschool programs that don’t require those amenities. Besides, if you do move those early childhood and preschool programs, you still need to find somewhere else to put them and would incur additional expense to utilize that space.
  2. Accusations were made that the data above did not come from the district. That is not true, with the exception of elementary school enrollment projection scenarios #2 and #3, which were generated by me as described in the original post. Some of the enrollment figures in these files received from the school district on September 12, 2019, are either more recent or pull enrollment at different dates than what has been published in other district documents. In the interest of transparency, I have attached the three source files received from the district below.
  3. The issue of program capacity versus absolute capacity was raised. It is true that program capacity does not reflect the maximum capacity scenario for a particular school. What is does reflect is the reality that not every space in a school — whether a traditional classroom or a special education room or a science lab or a music room or an art room — has the same practical capacity per square foot. Not every inch of the school is going to be able to be maxed-out from a capacity perspective.

A Chaska Continuity Crisis? Not so much.

At the December 17 Chaska City Council meeting, the city said its formal farewells to departing Councilors Chris Schulz, Greg Boe, and Paula Geisler, for it was the last meeting for all three.  Jay Rohe, who resigned from the Council in October, was also there to mark the occasion. There was much discussion at the meeting about how the sudden turnover of all four Council seats is unprecedented in the 50-year history of Chaska’s current council structure.

Already there is some muttering and questioning in the community about the lack of continuity and experience on the Council. But is that the right question to be asking? And is the current situation really so unprecedented?

Let’s take the second question first. The notion that Chaska has always had an experienced Council is one that is largely manufactured. In fact, we only need to wind the clock back to 2010 to find another highly inexperienced Council. After Mark Windschitl won the Mayoral Special Election in January of that year, he joined four other Councilors – Gino Businaro, Boe, Schulz, and Rick Ford – who were all in their first term.  Not to mention the fact that City Administrator Matt Podhradsky had been on the job for only a little over a year at the time. Looking back on that time, I think we can all agree that the city survived that “inexperience” on the Council.

Why is that? Well, it goes back to the first question. Continuity in anything can’t – and shouldn’t – only be judged by ensuring that specific individuals are present. No one is irreplaceable and no one is immortal. True continuity is created not by returning the same people to the same seats over and over again, but rather by the hard work of building a common set of values, a shared sense of mission, processes that have been refined with learnings over time, and a commitment to building community.

(And let’s also not forget that the folks who should get to decide how much continuity and experience are valued are the citizens of Chaska – not the Council itself. Keep that in mind should the Council decide to appoint a new Ward 2 Councilor instead of having a special election for the seat.)

Yes, we’ve lost a lot of experience from the Council in recent months. But, we’re also gaining a lot. Mike Huang and Jon Grau both served for nine years on the Planning and Parks & Recreations Commissions (including multiple years as the Chair for both), respectively. Both have been excellent public servants in those roles. McKayla Hatfield is a lifelong Chaska resident and small-business owner who demonstrated her devotion to the city and her willingness to work hard in her victorious campaign this fall.

They bring new perspectives and new areas of focus – just as the group a decade ago did. After all, Chaska has never stood still. It’s never looked backwards. Each wave of leadership has built on the foundation that has been left and moved our city forward into the future. I’m confident that Mike, Jon, and McKayla will do that, too. After all, they’re the product of the hard work put in over the years by generations of Chaska leaders to build that true continuity – one that transcends any individual.

So, don’t despair, question, or mutter. Instead, talk to your City Council members and let them know what you think! Help them move our city forward in a constructive way.

It’s Time for a Special Election, Chaska

Chaska Ward 2 City Council Member Greg Boe eked out a narrow 117-vote win in the race for State House District 47B on Election Day, meaning he will be forced to vacate his position for the final two years of his City Council term. This comes after Ward 4 Council Member Jay Rohe’s resignation in October. Both terms aren’t up for re-election until 2020.

With the pending vacancy in Ward 2 combined with the existing vacancy in Ward 4, the city is in unique circumstances.  It is not healthy for half of the city to be represented on the City Council by unelected Council Members for the next two years. It is critical that the replacement of these seats reflect the views of citizens in Wards 2 & 4.

The current composition of the Council only complicates the scenario. With three of four current members departing, it only makes it even more imperative to turn these decisions over to the citizens via special election.

These positions are elected for a reason. We have the time, resources, and capabilities to hold a special election. Per my non-lawyerly reading of election law, we could have new council members sat in time for the second council meeting in February, which realistically means at the most four council meetings with only three members. With the Planning Commission having relatively light agendas in October/November, it seems like there’s not a significant backlog of activity coming to the Council for final approval in January.  (I realize this can change quickly.) The costs of a special election are fractions of a percent of the city’s $16M general fund budget.

The city is already far along in the appointment process for Ward 4 – a process that began before the election results. I salute the Chaska residents who have stepped forward to be considered for appointment, and I thank them for their desire to serve. This effort is not about being devaluing them, but rather about putting the people of Ward 4 at the center of the conversation. Circumstances have changed, and wise leaders adjust when the situation changes.

In my time on the Chaska Park Board, one of the mantras we have heard and lived by – and one that has been echoed by the City Council — was making sure that “we did things right” even if that sometimes meant taking a little more time or even spending a little more money.  We don’t just pick the quickest, easiest or cheapest way when we can give our citizens something lasting and of value from choosing a different path. It’s our responsibility – and the City Council’s – to do the right thing for our city and there’s nothing they can do that has more value than giving the citizens their voice and their choice as to who will represent them.

A special election to fill the Ward 2 and Ward 4 vacancies is the right thing to do for the city of Chaska.

Don’t just take my word for it. 100+ Chaska residents have spoken up and signed their name to a petition just over the last two weeks to support a special election. They’ve raised their voices, I encourage you to listen to them, to join them, and tell the City Council:

Authorize a special election to fill the vacancies in Ward 2 and Ward 4.

If you agree, sign the petition at ChaskaSpecialElection.com! Join the Chaska Citizens for a Special Election Facebook group! And come to the City Council meeting on Monday, November 19 (7 p.m. at City Hall), where we will deliver the petition — and the message — in person to the Council!

Endorsement: Jon Grau for Chaska City Council, Ward 1

I’ve served with Jon Grau for the last eight years on the city’s Parks & Recreation Board. Jon has been the chair since 2016. Jon’s actions as a member and as the chairperson of that board have been in alignment with the four values he lists on his campaign page: Honesty, Transparency, Respect, and Service.

In our time on the Park Board, we’ve tackled a lot of significant projects, Firemen’s Park and the Dog Park preeminent among them. On these projects, Jon has sought to be a consensus-builder and he has always valued and prioritized public input.

We’ve dealt with the turmoil last year of the investigation of the Parks & Recreation department leadership. Jon was a steadying force as Chair during that time, working well with the interim leadership and the Board to make sure progress continued on our key priorities.

When I look at how Jon has campaigned for City Council this fall, a few things in particular impress me.

First, his emphasis on improving city communications. I was motivated to get involved with the Park Board because of poor communications from the city during the development of the original Veterans (now Sunset) Park. A decade later, some of the commonsense suggestions made by neighbors during that process still haven’t been implemented. We can and must do better. I believe Jon when he says that this will be a priority for him when he reaches the Council.

Second, Jon’s campaign has modeled how he would behave as a member of the Council. He’s done the work — knocking on over 1,000 doors by himself. If you listen to the League of Women Voters candidate forum, you’ll see he’s thought carefully about the issues. Jon has run an inclusive, forward-looking campaign respectful of Chaska’s values but looking to grow and make it great for future generations as well. Without dwelling on the issue, I would suggest that Jon’s opponent (and her supporters) haven’t always been at the same level.

Finally, Jon would provide a perspective to the Council that’s missing at the moment. Families with school-age children aren’t represented on the Council right now, and three of the four councilors (4/5 if you include the recently resigned Jay Rohe) have been there for nine years or more. Unfortunately, this has resulted in a Council that works well with itself, but is not as open to outside views and opinions (especially if they are dissenting) as they once were.  It’s time for some fresh views and new ideas.

Jon Grau will bring a much-needed openness to the Council, respecting and listening to all in our community. If you live in Ward 1, I encourage you to vote for Jon on Election Day.