Voters in the Burnsville-Eagan-Savage School District could decide a school referendum question this November that district officials said could soften the blow of budget cuts.
The Board of Education is considering a levy referendum that would raise $1.6 million for the district’s general fund if passed. The board in April authorized the district to develop referendum plans, and they’ll need to a make a final decision by August.
If passed, property taxes would increase $4 per month on a $200,000 home and $6 per month on a $300,000 home.
“We’re all trying to manage with the funding that we have as best we can and make sure that we are doing the best that we can in terms of providing a really quality education for all of our students,” board Chairwoman Abigail Alt said in an interview Tuesday.
The board trimmed the 2018-2019 budget by $4.4 million from original projections partly through teacher layoffs and cutting some sports programs. Next year will bring around $7 million in reductions by cutting sports before ninth grade and some music programs and staff. More of the same could come the following year.
District officials have cited a lack of state and federal money for the district’s troubled financial picture. Declining enrollment, which means less state aid, also plays a role.
Alt said approval of the levy could mean $1.6 million less in cuts in 2020-2021, adding the board’s efforts to “right-size” staff, refinance debt and find other operating efficiencies will continue.
“This board is certainly committed to being transparent and being open to sharing information to make sure people understand where we are where ever we land,” Alt said.
The state sets a maximum per-pupil levy that districts can ask voters to approve, district spokesman Aaron Tinklenberg said.
The district’s current voter-approved levies are $209 per-pupil below the maximum, so the largest increase the district could ask for would equal $1.6 million in revenue.
An operating levy only covers daily operating costs, not other expenses such as technology or construction.
Alt said districts only go out for an operating levy when they need to, but they aren’t alone; over 90 percent of districts in the state have operating levies.
The district has two voter-approved levies. One passed in 2011 for about $591 per student, and another in 2017 brought in $1,172 more per pupil.
Combined, they total about a little over $1,763 per student because the second levy is adjusted for inflation.
This year’s proposed levy would revoke the 2011 referendum and set another at $800 instead. If approved, that would bring the district to the maximum allowed by the state when combined with the 2017 levy.
Testing the waters
A community survey recently found many signs of a levy-supportive voter base but also showed residents lack information about the district, Peter Leatherman, CEO of The Morris Leatherman Company, told the board on June 13. The company conducted the survey.
When asked what they most like about the district, around a quarter of survey respondents said good teachers, Leatherman said. Another quarter talked about the curriculum and variety of programs; another spoke positively about the academics and what happens in classrooms.
Leatherman said responses tend to tip to one category, but Burnsville residents are thinking about all three aspects.
When asked about the district’s most serious issue, one in seven respondents talked about a lack of money, and 8% said the district’s most serious issue is poor spending. Nine percent each pointed to the district’s meeting the needs of an increasingly diverse student body or to school discipline as the most pressing issues.
Notably, 17 percent said the district had no serious issues, which is nearly twice as high as normally seen in the metro, Leatherman said. No issue drew more than a quarter or so of the responses, indicating no major, widespread concerns.
Eight out of 10 respondents said they receive a good value for their investment in the district. Around 66% said they believe the district has spent responsibly.
The majority of residents also give the district the benefit of the doubt, with 59% saying they believed the district would only ask for a tax increase as a last resort.
Leatherman said the core opposition to a tax increase is around 28%, similar to the opposition during the previous two voter-approved referendums. The majority of respondents believed the district’s budget problems are going to get worse and said a tax increase would protect their investment.
Leatherman said expanding student support services, such as mental health counselors and cultural liaisons, and attracting and retaining high-quality teachers were the most effective arguments to build support for the levy increase.
Pointing to state aid and the cost of special education was a less effective argument, the survey found.
Around a quarter of respondents said they’d support the levy because education is important or because it’s a reasonable request. However, Leatherman said, voters need to feel strongly that the money is urgently needed in order to show up on voting day. Only around 6% of respondents voiced that level of urgency.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the change to sports programs in the 2019-2020 budget reductions. Athletics below ninth grade were cut.