Richfield School District preps two referenda

 

The Richfield School Board has authorized the district to craft ballot language for two tax levy requests facing voters this November.

One referendum headed for the ballot, applying to long-term facilities maintenance, will ask voters to approve $90 million in physical improvements to district buildings, amounting to an impact of $12.50 per month on a $200,000 home, according to the district.

Another referendum will apply to a district operating levy, replacing a $950 per pupil levy with one that would add $400 to $450 per student to the current amount. The increase would signal a $7.08 per month increase on a $200,000 home, the district calculated.

The school board unanimously approved two separate resolutions that moved both referenda forward during its July 17 meeting.

The point of the operating levy request is to “help ensure the long-term fiscal stability of our school district,” Superintendent Steve Unowsky said.

To illustrate his point, Unowsky cited a fund balance that sits at 4.4 percent when many surrounding districts have fund balances between 8 and 12 percent, granting greater security in the event of unforeseen costs.

Richfield Schools have made $4.2 million in reductions in recent years while per pupil funding has become stagnant, according to a district report. That funding is $600 less than it would be if it would have merely increased with inflation since 2003, Unowsky noted.

In total, Richfield Schools receive $400 to $700 less than most surrounding districts in per student operating levy funding, according to the referendum report. That’s occurring while metro school districts are receiving smaller year-to-year increases than charter schools and schools in greater Minnesota, the report adds.

On top of providing increased financial stability, an additional $400 to $500 per pupil would help maintain or reduce class sizes while supporting expanded college-credit courses, according to the district.

Facilities

After a year-long facilities study identified $165 million in maintenance needs, the district seeks a $123 million bond levy that would be financed during the course of 25 years. Of that sum, the school board has the authority – with or without voter approval – to levy $32 million to address an aging array of facilities.

“Most of them were built in the 50s and 60s, but really, no major work has been done since the 1990s within our buildings,” Unowsky said.

The bond money would apply to needs identified across the district, such as improved accessibility and security, a new generator at Richfield High School, “21st century learning spaces” and health and safety measures.

During the meeting in which it moved the levy items forward, the school board also heard a presentation from IEA Environmental Assessment and Consulting, which examined facilities’ general quality and compliance with Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations.

During IEA’s work, the consultants found elevated carbon dioxide levels in some classrooms that suggest inadequate ventilation, Baxter said, indicating such conditions could come with a learning cost.

“There is research that indicates that high CO2 levels are directly related to decreased performance,” he told the board.

Additionally, stained ceiling tiles in some rooms signal potential moisture problems that can provide breeding grounds for fungus and bacteria, Baxter added.

The district has also addressed pest control by finding a new contractor, he said. “Historically, the district has had an issue with pests,” Baxter said.

Having authorized Unowsky to work with an attorney in crafting specific ballot language for the two referendums, the school board will decide whether to approve those ballot questions at its Aug. 8 meeting.

Follow Andrew Wig on Twitter @RISunCurrent.