This commentary is my own opinion and does not reflect the opinion of the Prior Lake-Savage Area School Board.
The decisions made on Aug. 14 and on Nov. 7th will have the greatest impact on the class of 2031 and beyond. The kids in our kindergarten class will be the full beneficiaries of both the space and the debt. The class of 2031 will experience the greatest changes of any other class before them. Between their first day and senior graduation the world will be vastly different. Our actions now with regards to curriculum, capacity and financial planning will have a positive and negative effect on their ability to be prepared for the world in 2031. Most, if not all, of the board will not be on the board in 2031, some may not even reside in Prior Lake in 2031. As with any large decision, making the most responsible decision for the future requires thorough vetting, and objective, open discussions of the various pros and cons. It is an awesome responsibility; one that I take very seriously.
The guiding principle for this referendum is to increase core space due to rising enrollment, given that we are currently at, or exceeding, capacity for all facilities. It is difficult to disagree with these capacity realities — we have reached and/or exceeded capacity in several facilities for more than a few years. We have seen the balance of growth and loss of students shift to be in our favor for over six years. Teachers have been no less than heroic in accommodating for the lack of space and the Bridges Area Learning Center is thriving despite a sub-optimal environment. The over-crowding is taking a toll on students and staff, and it’s impacting the learning that is taking place in our classrooms.
However, the overcrowding is also partially self-imposed via inadequate historical policies governing open enrollment and short-sighted capacity planning. We continued to open enroll even when we were full — and not just to activate key programs and facilities. Our self-imposed drive to keep taxes low has caused an unhealthy over-reliance on open enrollment revenue — this is not sustainable over the long-term. The lower-than-ideal operations levy; the use of Capital Appreciation Bond financing that will increase the time to pay off our bond and will increase our net bond payout by millions (currently an additional $9.4 million); and a re-distribution of items off the referendum to Long Term Facilities Maintenance and lease levy are very risky tactics. The risk is especially high considering the market adjustments that are forecast in the next few years, if not sooner. Finally, the enrollment predictions are the highest possible estimate and include open enrollment.
Ironically, this plan may have the exact opposite effect in terms of taxes in the long run. We don’t know, there wasn’t an analysis performed to evaluate options for these factors. It’s my belief that we should have engaged in more objective oversight and a thorough discussion of vendor spending, financing methods and their impact — both pro and con. The board looked at few options, and provided limited discussion given the size and complexity of risk and impact.
Nonetheless, I could not, with a clear conscience, vote, “no” — knowing full well that we cannot accommodate current or future enrollment with the current facilities. And the core space is the primary reason for the referendum. I also firmly believe that this does need to be decided by the voters and it is not right to deny the voters that opportunity.
I also cannot vote “yes."
I cannot support a plan where the only contingency plan is to cut staff and educational programs should predictions not turn out as hoped. The voters don’t get options; they get to decide yes or no on one financing method, one primary non-bid vendor, and one design option. At this time I am not convinced we have adequately and objectively discussed and strategically vetted the options available that will profoundly impact this district in years to come. This does not mean analysis paralysis. It means that we must engage in courageous discussion among ourselves and with the greater Prior Lake and Savage community. By saying, “the board voted in 2016”; or “it’s not the board’s role to get into the weeds”; and using talking points that often twist the full story is not my idea of responsive, transparent or strong leadership. We owe it to the community to have a more thorough analysis of risks and benefits — and a comprehensive strategic plan that encompasses both.
When the primary contingency plan is to cut staff and programs if revenue doesn’t meet expectations, with no threshold for the expectations, this is unacceptable.
For these reasons, I abstained from Monday’s roll call vote. It is not too late to have these conversations. We still have time to make sure that everyone can contribute and be personally accountable to our current students, to the class of 2031 and beyond. We cannot, knowingly, risk our mission to educate each child to their fullest potential.
Mary Frantz is a member of the Prior Lake-Savage Area School Board.