District 15 board wrestles with revised referendum questions

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.

The St. Francis School Board took a look at the referendum that residents voted down in May and discussed possible next steps in a work session June 21 and during its regular meeting June 26.

Voters said no to a $92.28 million bond referendum May 23, 2,496 to 2,004.

The district intended to use those dollars to replace dated infrastructure and upgrade interior finishes in nearly all school buildings. Larger projects included were the removal of portable classrooms at East Bethel Community School and the Lifelong Learning Center and construction of a 10-classroom addition to St. Francis Elementary School.

A second question, contingent on the first passing, asked for an additional $15.52 million with the purpose of adding a four-station community activities center at St. Francis High School. That question failed by a larger margin: 2,772 to 1,722.

The district partnered with ICS Consulting in Blaine to help coordinate May’s referendum vote and has continued to work with the firm to try and rework questions to turn the tide and secure dollars, chiefly for facilities.

“The maintenance needs that exist within our facilities are very extensive and expensive,” said Lisa Rahn, director of Community Education who has led work on the referendum.

Pat Overom, with ICS, presented three revised questions to the board this month: The first question lowers the ask to $80.06 million, which would be nearly tax neutral for residents with an annual debt service levy of $3.4 million coming off this fall’s tax levy. The estimated annual payment on a $150,000 home would be $1.27.

A second proposed question asks for $500,000 annually the next 10 years for technology, a $25.24 annual tax impact for a $150,000 homeowner.

A third question focuses on athletics. $9.33 million would allow a two-station gymnasium to be built on the northwest corner of the high school and provide stadium upgrades. The annual tax impact for a $150,000 homeowner would be $32.37, according to Overom.

The board saw a handful of people step forward during its consideration of visitors June 26. Most urged the board to wait on any decision, which members did.

But they only have until July 20 to submit plans to the Department of Education if the district wants questions to appear on the ballot Nov. 7.

The board scheduled a special meeting for 7 p.m. July 19, which will allow them to receive more input from the community in the coming weeks.

Board Member Jill Anderson urged administrators to formulate a communication plan right away.

“We’ve actually got a good start to a plan like that,” said Tim Finn, director of special services, filling in for Superintendent Troy Ferguson who is expected to return from a seven-week leave July 3. Finn also mentioned the district’s plan to send out a survey about proposed questions through various social media platforms.

Many board members praised a revised question one, which includes many of the facility projects it did before, such as the removal of portable classrooms and an addition to St. Francis Elementary School. The question focuses on achieving academic goals through facility and maintenance projects.

Board Member Rob Schoenrock said he would like certain aspects removed from question one, such as relocating the gymnastics program to the high school, which would necessitate a new weight room there.

“I know we need all this stuff,” Schoenrock said. But “we’re dealing with perception. That’s sports, that’s not classrooms.”

Chairperson Mike Starr said it would be the district’s job to educate the public on that point.

The weight room is used by various classes daily, he said.

The need for more gym space is an academic one, Board Member Amy Kelly agreed.

The cost to relocate gymnastics and build a new weight room at the high school comes in at about $1.59 million, less than 2 percent of question one’s total ask, Overom said.

The board will continue to discuss potential bond and levy requests next month.

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