St. Francis moves forward with single referendum question

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.

Though the St. Francis School Board has not yet formally resolved to hold a second special election this year, the body did vote July 19 to proceed with one referendum question, submitting appropriate documentation to the Minnesota Department of Education for review and comment.

The board voted 5-2 to “approve proceeding with planning, development, approvals, design and implementation of a facilities improvement project related to addressing physical facility and space needs as previously presented.”

Board Members Jill Anderson and Rob Schoenrock voted against the measure.

Two referendum questions put to residents in May were voted down. By a vote of 2,496 to 2,004, voters said no to a $92.28 million bond referendum intended to replace dated infrastructure and upgrade interior finishes in nearly all school buildings. A second question, contingent on the first passing, asked whether the district should be authorized to issue $15.52 million in order to construct a four-station community activities center at St. Francis High School. That failed by a larger margin: 2,772 to 1,722.

In the weeks following the failed vote, the board discussed three possible revised referendum questions. The first question kept the focus on facility needs, but eliminated several projects to reduce the ask to $80.06 million. The second question solicited $500,000 annually for the next 10 years to support technology needs in the district. The third question focused on athletics. A two-station gymnasium could be constructed and additional stadium upgrades completed for $9.33 million.

After soliciting community feedback through several forums and a survey, the board voted to proceed only with question one, which is 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 increase on a $200,000 home is $1.74 annually.

A majority of the 603 individuals who responded to the survey said they would support question one. About 68 percent said they would support the second question, and residents were completely split on the third question, according to Lisa Rahn, director of Community Education who has led work on the referendum.

While athletics improvements and technology dollars would be nice, facilities improvements are essential, Board Chairperson Mike Starr said.

“All of our schools, all of our buildings are going to have something done to (them) to make them look nice again and give pride back to the students and the staff when they come to work everyday,” he said. “Maybe in a year from now, a year and a half, we can do a sports facility bond, for example.”

But for now, one priority will take center stage to keep things simple, he said.

Proposed projects in question one are largely the same as they were in May with some exceptions. Installing synthetic turf at the high school football field was eliminated, as were some stadium improvements. The maintenance building will no longer see a new bathroom, and a reduction in dollars to be spent on interior furnishings was also made to bring the total down to $80.06 million.

Removing portable classrooms, updating classrooms to meet 21st century learning standards, creating secure entries and more are still planned.

Schoenrock was opposed to certain aspects still included in 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,” he said at the June 26 School Board meeting. But “we’re dealing with perception. That’s sports, that’s not classroom.”

Starr said the district would need to educate the public on that point because the weight room is used by various classes daily.

Board Member Amy Kelly agreed that the need for more gym space is an academic one.

Anderson was unable to be reached for comment on her objections.

The board Aug. 14 will finalize wording of a single question and vote on a formal resolution to hold an election Nov. 7.

The board, with district staff, will put together a community outreach plan in the coming weeks, according to Rahn.

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