District 11 residential study centers on referendum

Staff Writer
Since 2013, I have primarily covered the Anoka-Hennepin and Spring Lake Park school districts as well as the city of Spring Lake Park for ABC Newspapers.

Anoka-Hennepin’s 2017 residential study focused on residents’ opinions about a referendum coming down the pike in November.

The Morris Leatherman Company surveyed 625 residents this year.

Responses indicate that about 50 percent of residents are predisposed to vote for or against a tax increase, no matter the specific package. One-fourth of residents surveyed said they would be for any tax increase, and just under one-fourth said they would be against any tax increase. Half of residents are persuadable depending on what the package looks like and how much it will cost.

“Right now we live in polarizing times,” said Peter Leatherman with the Morris Leatherman Company, presenting survey results to the Anoka-Hennepin School Board June 12.

Leatherman spoke of a “growing property tax hostility” across the metro.

More than half of survey respondents said they believe their current property taxes are too high, though they don’t necessarily assign the blame to the school district.

On average, residents said they would support an increase of $6 or $7 per month for a bond and $8 a month to support an operating levy increase, results show.

Anoka-Hennepin’s proposed ask is around $250 million, which would cost most property owners in the district between $10 and $15 monthly, Superintendent David Law announced at community meetings across the district last month.

The board will look to finalize questions in August, but two new elementary schools, additions to all five high schools and modifications to all district buildings have been proposed to accommodate growth in specific areas of the district and allow for portable classrooms to be removed, both recommendations of the Fit For the Future Community Task Force, which 54 percent of survey respondents were unaware existed.

The 32-member community task force met for a large part of 2016, studying the state of the district and projections of what the future holds before drafting recommendations and presenting those to the School Board in January 2017.

Survey respondents would be more apt to support a bond referendum if safety and security improvements, additional classroom space and the removal of portable classrooms are projects on tap. Two new elementary schools, expanded physical education and gym space, and high school science lab and classroom modifications were less compelling to potential voters, but still generated support.

“You don’t have anything that we would call a deal-killer,” Leatherman said.

Almost three-fourths of respondents thought improvements were a good idea. Those that thought improvements were a bad idea – 22 percent of respondents – were chiefly concerned with the idea of building two new elementary schools, unsurprising given that many respondents, those who live outside of Blaine and Ramsey, would not send their children to those schools and might feel they have no “skin in the game,” Leatherman said

Asked if they would support a $252 million bond, 56 percent answered affirmatively.

“People are not seeing the perceived need at this time,” Leatherman said, pointing to three-fourths of survey respondents calling buildings and facilities excellent or good. “People don’t see the buildings as having major deficits at this point.”

Leatherman urged the district to establish need and relay potential consequences of a failed bond referendum to voters.

Asked if they would support a $226 per pupil unit increase to the operating levy, 61 percent answered affirmatively.

“If everybody voted, both of these would be successful,” Leatherman said.

But that isn’t reality, so the district needs to encourage people to get to the polls Nov. 7.

Anoka-Hennepin’s internal survey, taken by 135 individuals following community meetings, yielded some similar insights, according to Johnna Rohmer-Hirt, director of research, evaluation and testing.

Removing portables was applauded for improved safety and security, and increased classroom space was another benefit of proposed projects, respondents said.

Questions were received on a number of topics, many regarding boundaries and proposed timelines.

Communication with the community will continue to ramp up as the board sees preliminary referendum questions later this month.

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