In a few weeks, Eastern Carver County Schools will ask voters for roughly $211.7 million. If successful, the Nov. 5 referendum would cost the average household $50.58 per month.
District 112 officials say the funds are needed for crucial repairs; to build an elementary school for growing communities; to continue funding technology and security measures; and to manage classroom sizes.
“It all makes sense. These are reasonable requests,” said Zach Saueressig, a local parent and referendum advocate.
However critics, sometimes spurred on by disagreements over the district’s recent equity initiatives, advocate against the referendum.
“They’re laying out a lot of money, that’s one of my concerns,” commented Vince Beaudette, a conservative activist from Victoria, who is also critical of the district’s “equity agenda.”
$550 PER STUDENT
The groundwork for the referendum began months ago and the District 112 School Board approved the measure in June.
The first referendum question asks for an operating levy of $550 per student, or $5.6 million per year over the next 10 years.
“The state has not kept pace with inflation on the funding formula for at least 15 years. Currently right now, it’s a gap of $6 million a year,” according to Director of Finance & Operations DeeDee Kahring.
The measure would “prevent cuts to programs and services, maintain class sizes and manage growing enrollment,” according to the district’s website.
Of student funding, 71% comes through the state, and 22% comes from district property taxes, Kahring said. The federal government funds another 2% and 5% comes from other sources.
The total cost of the question to taxpayers is somewhat variable, as the question factors in annual inflation, and it could increase or decrease depending on the number of students enrolled, according to district officials.
Gwen Michael, a Chanhassen resident who has raised questions about the referendum, argues that the inflation costs associated with the question are “hidden.”
The second question asks voters for $111.7 million. Of those funds, $35.9 million would pay for a new elementary school in Chaska; $13.7 million would build a new bus garage; and the largest portion, $62.1 million, would pay for school repair and maintenance, Kahring said.
The school, which would open in fall 2022, is needed to house an influx of 1,400 students expected to enroll over the next five years, nearly two-thirds at the elementary school level, according to district projections.
The existing bus garage only can hold half of the current buses, according to the district. If the referendum passes, the district would convert an existing commercial/industrial building at 4201 Norex Drive in Chaska into a bus garage.
The majority of the maintenance money would go to Chaska Middle School East ($22.6 million/36.6%), Chaska Middle School West ($19.3 million/31.2%) and La Academia, a Spanish-language immersion school ($10 million/16.3%).
“We went through the process to replace the boilers. Now what needs to happen is we need to replace the infrastructure with that,” Kahring said. That includes replacing 50-year-old ventilation, plumbing and electrical systems.
Beaudette takes issue with space taken up by the district’s preschool programs. “What they’ve done is take space, repurpose it from kindergarten and elementary over to preschool. Preschool is optional. It is not required in this district,” Beaudette said. “To say they don’t have the space — of course they do. They better start thinking about repurposing it back.”
“Inflated growth numbers and underrepresented student space is a consistent theme found in the reports of D112,” said Michael, who also took issue with how space was being allocated for “non K-5 programs.”
In a recent letter to the editor, Michael stated that schools can accommodate another 1,091 students.
However, argues Celi Hega, District 112 communications director, “construction capacity versus program capacity are two different numbers.” A classroom may be built for 25 children, but only hold six special education students, she said.
In order for question 2 to pass, question 1 must pass.
The third question approves a 10-year security and technology levy. It would be a continuation of a levy that was approved in 2013 to support technology for students and staff and school security, according to the district.
The district describes the question as a “no-tax increase” on its website.
“They’re selling it as something that’s not going to cost us anything,” Beaudette argues. “Well it is, because our taxes should go down.”
If the levy isn’t approved, the costs would need to come out of the general fund, which would mean cuts to other programming, according to school officials.
So far, the district has spent $58,263 informing the public about the referendum, including a recent sample ballot mailed out to residents.
“We can only market with information. We cannot advocate for a vote either way,” said Kahring.
The largest amount of district funds have been spent on a fall 2018 survey ($18,000); video production ($13,050) and a consultant ($20,875).
The consultant worked for the district as the former communications director left for a different job, and Haga came on board, according to Haga.
“If you factored in the salary savings while the director position was vacant that would reduce expenditures significantly. And while I know that these efforts are sometimes dismissed as marketing, I’d submit that any time the district goes out to its residents to ask for additional funding, we have a moral, ethical, and legal obligation to make sure residents are informed, and that’s what these dollars represent,” Haga stated.
Groups have lined up on both sides of the referendum, including “Vote Yes for the Kids” and “Concerned Parents of ISD 112.”
The district has granted data requests for the contact information of parents from pro and con referendum groups, according to Haga, including Chris Commers with Chaska Education Association; Anna Stauber with the Citizens Referendum Committee; and Beaudette with “Concerned Parents.”
Residents report receiving recent phone calls in favor of the referendum. Beaudette said he anticipates the information he collected would be used for emailing.
A group of residents recently expressed its concerns to the Chaska City Council, before it voted, 3-0, in favor of supporting the referendum.
The district’s equity work was among the items discussed during a visitors presentation.
“Equity is about political indoctrination. It has nothing to do with defeating racism,” Julie Slater, of Victoria, told the council. “So, the reason why I’m concerned as a taxpayer is our tax money has been used to implement this program, and parents like myself don’t want it anywhere near the kids, and now the district is asking for more money from us, and frankly the community doesn’t trust them.”
“I believe the district has done their homework,” said Saueressig, in a phone interview. “I believe their plan seems reasonable and good. I don’t see any critical errors in their plan or their processes.”
Editor’s note: The print version of this article included an error regarding approval of questions. In order for question 2 to pass, question 1 must pass. Question 1 can pass without the approval of question 2. Also, the total cost of the referendum questions is included with this article. An amount previously reported in June was incorrect.