Six or so months away from a potential Eastern Carver County Schools referendum, the school board is finding a willingness to listen from residents, but uncertainty still remains despite cuts of nearly $10 millions from the 2020-21 and 2021-22 budget.
Peter J. Leatherman, chief executive officer at Morris Leatherman Company, a full-service market and research firm, shared survey numbers and detailed information at a May 10 school board workshop.
Morris Leatherman Company has been hired for nearly a quarter of a century by the district to study resident opinion.
The study, which included 500 random district residents, via phone interviews, found that 72% favored a referendum in 2021. Only 14% said no, with 14% unsure at this time.
“This was us dipping our toes into a property tax increase request. The statement was the schools are good investment and I would support a referendum to protect that investment. This response tells us people are willing to listen to a request,” Leatherman said.
Slam dunk, right? Wrong.
Asked whether District 112 has adequate funding currently, 59% said yes, with 31% saying no. Of parents with children in schools, 53% agreed that funding is adequate.
Leatherman said two common responses from those believing the district has adequate funding came from a misconception that the schools saved money by not being open last spring; and that COVID relief dollars can be used to cover general funds.
Asked about the quality of public schools, residents said the district provides excellent (30%) or good (55%) education. Between 2017 and 2019, the excellent category ranged from 41 to 45%.
“We have seen this decline across the state. Edina, Wayzata, both dropped 20% in the excellent rating. Overall excellent rating across the state is 15%. They are not saying the education is fair or poor. It’s just a shift from excellent to good,” Leatherman said.
A main culprit for this shift was the decision on the timing of re-opening of schools, Leatherman added.
Respondents said Eastern Carver County Schools rated well with its teachers and staff, variety of programming and broad curriculum, and its excellent or good academics.
The most serious issues the district faces are class sizes and lack of funding, which 10% of those surveyed responded with. Fourteen percent of the responses said there is nothing wrong with the district, while 23% were unsure. Leatherman said this category was where many non-parents fell into.
Respondents said stable funding and maintaining class sizes make them 78% more likely to be in favor of a referendum. Other key areas are how a referendum would increase property values (76%) and an understanding that state funding is not keeping up with added expenditures (61%).
Budget cuts over the last two years were not nearly as impactful in terms of asking for a new referendum.
Leatherman said the aspect that most concerns him is the amount of “uncertainty.” He believes if the district asked voters for an additional $20 a month, far less than a number a majority of those surveyed said they’d be comfortable with ($30), the likely outcome is success.
Though he cautioned surveys are a snapshot on time.
It’s now in the hands of the school board whether to proceed or not.