ISD 728 Administration Asks School Board to Consider 2019 Referendum
At the School Board’s request, Superintendent Dan Bittman provided a recommendation to the ISD 728 School Board at its May 6 and May 20 meetings for a November 5, 2019 referendum. If approved by the Board, the referendum would seek local support for additional operating funds and building bonds to help achieve both the district’s Strategic Plan’s results and the community’s priorities.
The request is the culmination of a comprehensive planning process that began more than a year and a half ago and included community-driven development of the district’s Strategic Plan – a roadmap that leads ISD 728 into the next decade of learning.
“Throughout that planning process, we collected feedback from thousands of residents in our ISD 728 communities,” Bittman said. “Our Strategic Plan highlights their shared desire to provide our students with innovative learning environments, equitable opportunities, and access to programs and facilities. And, while the referendum recommendation will not meet all of the needs identified by this Strategic Plan, it is directly aligned with what the community asked for, while remaining fiscally responsible to our resident taxpayers.”
The recommendation is for a two-question ballot. Question One would increase the district’s operating levy to fund school materials, staff and academic programs and put the District closer to the state average and other similarly sized districts in terms of funding. The second question would provide bond funds to address building needs due to growth, building age and inequities across the district. The Board anticipates making a final decision about the referendum at its June 24 meeting.
“We know some additional state funding is being made available by the Legislature. However, the additional funding does not even cover inflationary increases for this year or address years of underfunding. In addition, unfunded mandates related to Special Education programs, for example, cost our district more than $10.5 million a year beyond what we are reimbursed,” Steinbrecher said. “No organization or business can operate that way.”
The referendum funding would address multiple areas of concern and need, ISD 728 staff reported to the board. First, curriculum and programming would be better supported, and there would be more equitable opportunities and services for our students and families, as prioritized in the Strategic Plan and recommended by residents.
Next, the referendum would address deferred maintenance needs across the district, which includes dollars for such things as roof and parking lot repairs, as well as for maintenance of heating systems at each of our sites. Funds would also provide space for growing enrollment by building a new school, and updating schools at all levels to improve accessibility, create more flexible learning spaces, and address current inequities.
Meanwhile, the ISD 728 is moving ahead with more than $10 million in budget cuts for the 2019-2020 school year, with additional cuts likely in 2020-2021, despite increased state funding. While ISD 728 is the eighth largest district in Minnesota, its per student general education funding and operating levy are both dead last among the 15 largest school districts, and well below the state average.
Without additional funding provided by the two proposed ballot questions, class sizes would increase, there would be less support for struggling students, budget cuts would continue, boundary changes would be necessary and important building maintenance needs would not be addressed, among other impacts.
“We know our administrative and leadership team has done a lot of work to seek input, align budgets and communicate its concerns about funding over the past year,” Steinbrecher said. “Every approach and angle has been considered. School funding is a shared responsibility between the state and federal government, as well as our local communities.”
The budget planning process has allowed the school district to take a hard look at its operations, Bittman added.
“Making budget adjustments is never anything a superintendent wants to do, or a school board wants to do. Ultimately, we want to continue and build on our success as one of the top school districts in Minnesota, and to meet the needs of our families as outlined in our planning process. We’re approaching this as an opportunity for change and growth, in partnership with our community,” he said.