A process that began in March with facility task force recommendations and followed with more than $3 million in budget cuts, a year after $6 million was slashed, Eastern Carver County Schools is going ahead with a referendum on Nov. 2, 2021.
A new operating levy is a “strategic investment in sustaining and building the district’s high quality educational and programming activities into the future,” the district stated in a release announcing the news.
The question posed on the ballot will read: “The board of Independent School District No. 112 (Eastern Carver County), Minnesota has proposed to increase the School District’s general education revenue by $550 per pupil, subject to an annual increase at the rate of inflation. The proposed new referendum revenue authorization would be first levied in 2021 for taxes payable in 2022 and applicable for ten (10) years unless otherwise revoked or reduced as provided by law.”
“The decision to move forward with a referendum isn’t one we made lightly,” said Board Chair Dr. Jeff Ross. “We are grateful for the anticipated increase in education funding from the legislature, but that’s only for the next two years. We just don’t know what state support will look like moving forward, and that inconsistency has been an ongoing challenge for school districts.”
At a May 24 board meeting, DeeDee Kahring, departing finance and operations director, shared that with no additional funding, even with budget cuts in 2020-21 and 2021-22, and the closing of East Union Elementary at the end of the 2021-22 school year, the district’s unassigned fund balance would dip below the school board’s minimum goal of 5%.
Without a new operating levy, proposed budget cuts of $3.5 million in 2022-23, $2.3 million in 2023-24 and another $250,000 in 2024-25 would be necessary to maintain the targeted unassigned fund balance.
“This operating levy would provide resources our district needs to continue to deliver the excellent educational experience our community both deserves and expects while continuing to be fiscally prudent,” Ross said.
The tax impact on a home valued at $375,000 would be $20 per month and $242 per year.
STACKING UP TO THE NEIGHBORS
Eastern Carver County Schools compared itself to 14 other Minnesota school districts based on a number of criteria including enrollment, number of high schools and location. The current referendum levy is around $900, roughly half of that in Minnetonka and Wayzata.
An increase in $550 per pupil would put ECCS somewhere between “Eden Prairie and Edina’s numbers,” Kahring said.
Setting benchmarks to compare data is something districts often do to see where gains can be made.
Of the 14 districts compared, District 112 ranked No. 10 of 15 in terms of general fund expenditure per pupil for Pre-K through 12th grade students at $12,983 per pupil, falling just shy of the average of $13,326.
District 112 ranked 12th of 15 in terms of district level administration and support services at $827 per student. Roughly 40% of that number goes to support services. The average is $961 for the 15 districts.
Property tax revenue per student is $3,004, ninth of 15 in the district list. Revenue in some neighboring districts include: Minnetonka ($3,830), Edina ($4,001), Hopkins ($4,134), Eden Prairie ($4,236), Bloomington ($4,498) and Wayzata ($4,850).
District 112 ranks third of the 15 districts in terms of debt service revenue at $1,944, more than three times that of Minnetonka and Eden Prairie.
Eastern Carver County Schools Finance and Human Resources Manager Pam Jensen said, as a growing community, the district has accumulated a lot of debt in recent years with new buildings. Areas such as Minnetonka and Bloomington, fully developed, do not have the debt ECCS has.
Jensen noted that the district will see a large reduction in debt over the next few years.
WHAT WILL BE GAINED
If approved, the increased levy could allow for decreased class sizes in elementary buildings. DeeDee Kahring presented other options such as a “zero hour” at the high schools or other ways to add more opportunities at the new six-period day at middle schools.
Kahring said the $550 per pupil increase, for the most part, is maintaining what the district will offer in 2021-22.
“With those two amounts, we certainly do not still have the money to bring back all of the budget cuts. ... We have to be careful if there are things we bring back, it is something we can do, and we can sustain for a longer period of time,” Kahring said.
In 2017, a $375,000 house saw a tax impact of $2,281 for the year. That number decreased to $1,883 for 2021 as the tax base has increased in Eastern Carver County Schools.
“We look at property values and what’s one of most driving factors in increase, and that’s the quality of education in that, whether you have students or not. The investment in our district is important for multiple reasons,” Ross said. “I’m really excited that we can be nimble, and certainly be responsible for the community, but we can also still focus on how we can deliver the best product for them.”
INCREASE IN FUNDING
Minnesota lawmakers agreed June 22 to an increase of almost $463 million to education. Much of that new spending will go toward a larger general education funding formula, which makes up nearly three-fourths of the revenue for school districts.
That number, generally 1%, was increased by 2.45% in 2022 and 2% in 2023.
While that helps Eastern Carver County Schools stay above the 5% targeted unassigned fund balance the next three school years with recent cuts, beyond that in 2024-25 it is not enough to keep up with costs and needed expenditures.
“We are grateful for the 2.45 number, but it is not enough to continue on with the district,” Kahring said.
“It’s hard to build and sustain programs on money we don’t know we’re going to get,” said Board Director Jenny Stone. “We can’t afford to lose this referendum. But I want to be honest with the taxpayers. ($550) is handing us a band-aid. ... We’re literally stopping the bleeding. It stops the cuts.”