Close call expected in Richfield Schools levy referendum

One year ago, the leaders of Richfield Public Schools were surprised and disheartened when voters denied a request for more funds. This year, district supporters are leaving nothing to chance.

To the extent that is possible at least.

After last year’s failed levy referendum, forces have mobilized in a way they did not for that last try. Eighty volunteers have pledged their services in canvassing the city. Supt. Bob Slotterback plans to have made upwards of 50 presentations to churches, retirement homes and community organizations on the topic. The school district has sent mailings to every address in Richfield.

But the question remains: Has it been enough? Last year’s referendum flew under the radar — until it was defeated. This year it has been front-and-center in local public discourse. And those pushing for it are not allowing forgone conclusions, not after the district was comforted one year ago by surveys that suggested the voters would approve a $119 per year tax increase for the average homeowner, only to have the referendum fail by about 200 votes.

The sheer number of residents the district must reach also fosters a lack of certainty. In his 50-or-so presentations, Slotterback said he hopes to reach 1,000 people, calling that figure “one of the discouraging things” about his outreach effort, because 1,000 people equals about 5 percent of the city.

Those mailings are an attempt to make up for the impossibility of reaching everybody in person. Similarly, a group called Citizens for a Quality Community (CQC) has been canvassing the city, with 80 volunteers signed up to distribute literature advocating for the referendum. It is all part of a campaign to avow district residents of some stark truths.

State funding is flat, while Richfield is well behind neighboring districts in its per pupil levy authority, the district tells voters. It is about $280 per pupil behind Minneapolis,  $470 behind Bloomington, $750 behind Edina and $850 behind St. Louis Park, commonly viewed as the nearby district most similar to Richfield.

The referendum asks two questions. The first regards the renewal of an existing levy for 10 years; it would not yield a tax increase. The second question asks for a $60 per pupil increase in the annual levy, a number the district says would only allow Richfield Schools to essentially keep pace with inflation, while still leaving Richfield’s levy behind nearby districts.

If both requests made in the referendum fail, Richfield could face up to $3.7 million in cuts and an average class-size increase of up to 8, according to district data.

If public statements were the only gauge, those prospects would be enough to pass the referendum with overwhelming support. Numerous letters to the editor in favor of the measure have appeared in these pages, while not one letter in opposition has been submitted. The referendum has received official support from groups with as much clout as the Richfield Housing and Redevelopment Authority and the city council. “Vote Yes” signs have appeared on lawns across the city, while a tour of Richfield’s streets reveals no signage stating a contrary stance.

“We haven’t heard anything negative at all during our campaign about the schools or the referendum,” said Brian McGlinn, a core CQC organizer.

Slotterback, who reported he has received “five or six” emails opposing the referendum, can say almost the same thing. “I very seldom run into anybody that gets mad and pounds on the table and yells they’re not going to support it,” he said, noting he is aware of no organized opposition.

It may not be organized, but he knows it is there.

“There’s a lot of people who still don’t think we can pass that second question,” Slotterback said.

Adding to the uncertainty are comments made by Richfield residents such as Craig Marston, the Republican candidate for Minnesota House District 50A who also sits on the district’s fiscal planning committee. At a candidates forum conducted by the Richfield League of Women Voters On Sept. 29, Marston committed to voting for the first ballot question, but stated he was undecided on the second.

“I have not made a decision one way or the other on the increase, because from my understanding, even though with the increase, there’s going to be possible layoffs,” Marston said at the time.

If the first question passes but the second question fails, the district would still require $1.2 million in reductions based on projections that account for an anticipated enrollment increase of 40 students and a 2.5 percent fund balance, according to the district.

In an interview with the Sun-Current on Friday, Oct. 26, Marston declined to state how he would vote on the second referendum question. “I’m not taking a public stance but I’m encouraging (the voters) to check it out,” he said.

Although the referendum hasn’t been a main topic of conversation on his door knocking routes, especially since much of his campaign has been focused on the Bloomington portion of the district, Marston said he has sensed some hesitance among voters in approving a tax increase.

“It keeps coming back to the tax payers,” he said, “and I think the tax payers are a little leery.”

Marston’s opponent, Rep. Linda Slocum (D-Richfield) has made clear her support for both referendum questions. “People know I’m for it, and I’ve gotten a lot of positive comments from people at the door,” she told the Sun-Current.

Slocum later added, “I do think it’s going to pass, because I do think people in this community value schools.

The Independence Party candidate for the District 50A House seat, Tony Koch, was ambiguous about his support for the referendum during the Richfield voters forum, but did call for cut in non-academic programming in schools. “Schools are being asked to do too much,” he said at the forum.

A question of perception

Aside from listing facts and figures, referendum supporters must win in the ideological arena. When the Richfield School Board voted in favor of erecting lights at the high school baseball field, funded by rental revenue generated at the recently renovated football field, opponents to the upgrade voiced concern over how voters would perceive the decision come referendum time, considering recent budget cuts in the district.

And the referendum may be subject to more widespread political winds. “The federal election is becoming a referendum on public spending,” Slotterback observed. He pondered, “Does that influence a local election like this?”

One prominent Richfield Republican has already cast his “no” vote based on matters beyond the mere scope of Richfield. Philip Mortenson, treasurer for five local Republican organizations — including the campaigns of local state candidates Marston, Vern Wilcox and Matt Ashley — cast an absentee ballot due to his election day duties.

“I just think the schools need to start taking a look at where they’re spending their money and stop going to voters for more,” Mortenson said, before mentioning an objection he has with Education Minnesota regarding pension funds.

Mortenson also expressed a “show me” mindset; he wants to see stronger test results before sending more money. “Increase the doggone score,” he said. “Start bragging when 80 percent pass the test, not 50 percent.”

It is a topic Slotterback has addressed in his dozens of referendum presentations. He says the district is doing what it can regarding standardized test scores, making due with demographic realities.

“If you look at the top 30 percent in any scoring system, we are as good as anybody,” Slotterback said, arguing that a quality education often comes down to home life.

“If your mom has an MBA and your dad is an attorney, you’re going to go to college. We’ve got a lot of kids that come from homes where neither parent’s gone to college. And now we’re trying to get them college-ready.”

In his presentations, Slotterback mentions that last year about 65 percent of Richfield students received free or reduced price lunch, a measure of poverty. Also, he points out that Hispanic and African-American students — about 70 percent of the district’s student population — have ACT test scores that eclipse statewide averages for those groups.

There are other numbers at the center of the referendum push, and they have been a subject of some degree of misinformation. Referendum backers are trying to drill it into the heads of Richfield residents: Approving both measures of the referendum means a $16 per pupil, per year increase for the owner of the average Richfield home, assessed at about $169,000. It is not $16 per month, as it was once reported in the Star Tribune, Slotterback reminds voters.

But misinformation born out of honest mistakes has continued. As the city council unanimously passed a resolution last week in support of the referendum, Mayor Debbie Goetel misspoke, stating the referendum is asking for a $600 per pupil increase. The correct figure, again, is $60.

The figures aren’t the issue for some, however. When asked, Mortenson confirmed that his stance was based on a desire to send a message. “They’re going to have to take a look at their priorities — what’s essential, what’s not essential. That’s true with all taxing levels,” he said.

Mortenson, a senior citizen, added that he was unaware of the general sentiment among his cohort, but referendum promoters figure others like him are out there.

Slotterback expects a nail-biter.

“We’re not going to get 90 percent,” he admitted. “In fact it will be very close, just like last time.”