With an Eastern Carver County Schools operating levy referendum on Nov. 2, and early voting well underway, school officials have been making their case to voters.
If approved, the 10-year operating levy would increase general education revenue by $550 per pupil, subject to an annual increase at the rate of inflation.
Through in-person and virtual presentations Sept. 28-29, school district officials said that building trust through detailed planning for the spending of additional funds is something the communities of Chaska, Chanhassen, Carver and Victoria not only want, but expect.
“We have worked hard to do responsible budget planning with staff and the school board,” said Ron Meyer, the district’s new director of Finance and Operations and a former ECCS school board member, at the Sept. 29 meeting. “Part of what makes our school strong as well as maintains our strong partnerships with our communities is that the school district takes our responsibility as stewards of public dollars seriously.”
If the levy is approved, based on the average Carver County home value of $375,000, the average homeowner would see a tax increase of about $20 per month, or $242 annually. The range of increase would be as small as $8 per month for a home value of $150,000, to $40 per month for a $750,000 home.
Meyer said state funding has not kept on pace with inflation for more than 15 years. If it had, ECCS would have received more than $5 million in additional funding last year alone.
Currently, ECCS operates at $980 per pupil funding. Comparable districts such as Stillwater and Lakeville sit at $1,250 to $1,400, with Eden Prairie, Bloomington, Wayzata, Edina, Hopkins and Minnetonka well over $1,500, with some close to $2,000, according to the district. The increase of $550 per pupil for fiscal year 2023 would place ECCS in the middle to lower half of comparable districts.
“Our district continues to deliver a strong academic experience in the classroom and provides amazing opportunities for our students outside the classroom. But without additional funding we cannot ensure that we are continuing to deliver that commitment to our students and our families in a manner that they deserve and that all of us expect,” Meyer said.
According to a district document, school taxes are currently lower than they were a few years ago. Annual school taxes on a $375,000 home in 2014 (before passage of a 2015 referendum) were $2,184; taxes on the same-value home now would be $1,875.
If the referendum is approved, Eastern Carver County Schools says it will begin to lower class sizes at the elementary age, bring back some electives at the middle and high school level, and lower high school athletics and activities fees.
It will also grow the fund balance to protect programs and services from enrollment shifts, financial fluctuations, or other unforeseen circumstances. The district must keep a fund balance of 5% of its total expenditures for the year. More than $9 million was cut from the budget over the last two years to adhere to this policy.
At the Sept. 29 meeting, Superintendent Lisa Sayles-Adams, who joined the district in 2020, acknowledged a referendum approval would not bring back seven-period days at the secondary level.
“Eastern Carver County Schools prides itself on delivering a high quality educational experience for our students both inside and outside of the classroom and we have much to be proud of. We continue to maintain strong graduation rates at our high schools. Across the district the number of graduating seniors of 92.3%, which is significantly higher than the state average of 83.9%,” Sayles-Adams said.
“Our community continues to invest in our schools, and our schools continue to invest in our schools. We have delivered on the community’s investment in past referendums by building new facilities to support our students in their academic and extracurricular activities. These are just not district resources, but community resources, and we are proud partners with our community and share these viable assets,” she added.
The ability to maintain the current student experience would not be possible if the referendum does not pass, the district said.
Programming such as fifth-grade band, gifted and talented services, athletic and activity offerings, and a restructuring of the middle school and high school media centers could occur.
Additionally, other saving measures could include increased class sizes by one student at elementary, and by two students at middle and high school levels, as well as an increased walk zone of one mile for elementary and two miles for secondary.
“It is important to point out the district board originally reviewed a $650 per pupil increase based on the significant cuts that were projected for the upcoming years as well as our long-range financial projection. However, because of the additional funds that were provided from the state at the end of the legislative session in June, our board went with a more conservative ask of $550 to make sure that we are asking for what we really need to sustain our schools and our commitment to our students,” Meyer said.
In 2019, voters approved one of three Eastern Carver County Schools referendum questions. The voters approved a security and technology levy on a margin of 1,002 votes. However increasing of the operating levy failed by a margin of 193 votes; and another question, asking for a new bus garage, building maintenance and a new elementary school failed by 495 votes.
The failed questions resulted in two years of budget cuts, positions lost, classroom sizes increased, and a shift from seven-to-six period days at the high school and middle school levels.