City of Richfield throws weight behind schools


Officials from the city of Richfield and the public school district within its borders are highlighting the symbiotic nature of the two taxing authorities as they budget for 2018.

With a critical referendum approaching, Richfield’s city officials are voicing strident support for a school district that – as Superintendent Steve Unowsky pointed out during a Sept. 12 levy presentation in front of the Richfield City Council – many people don’t realize is an entity unto itself, separate from the city.

In addressing the city’s own budget during the same Sept. 12 meeting, the city council unanimously approved a levy amount that was about $265,000 less than the initially proposed version. Council members said they wanted taxpayers to have more money to support the schools.

“Taking the option that lowers the levy – and takes less money out of the citizens’ pockets so they can give more serious consideration to the schools’ referendum and everything else that goes on in this community – is the best that we possibly can do for the citizens,” Mayor Pat Elliott said.

Voters will be greeted with a Nov. 7 ballot that asks for approval of two school levies. One would increase the district’s operating levy by $450 per student, raising taxes on the owner of a $210,000 home by $7.67 per month. The other is asking residents to help with facility improvements by approving an $86.8 million capital levy that would raise taxes on a $210,000 home by $23.08 per month. This comes after a study identified $120 million in recommended maintenance on the district’s buildings.

Two council members remembered when those facilities were a bit fresher. “We moved here in ‘53 and I finished my kindergarten year at Sheridan Hills,” Elliott said, remembering the resources at his and his classmates disposal as they moved through the grades.

“We never lacked the tools we needed to succeed when we graduated from high school here. You need to have a safe, secure place to study, a safe, secure place to learn.”

The capital levy dollars would help Richfield Schools improve safety, security, traffic flow and classroom spaces, according to the district.

There hasn’t been a significant property-based investment in the district since the mid-1990s, when Councilmember Simon Trautmann was attending Richfield High School.

“1996 was an important year because that was the year that, with hair down to my chin, I walked into Richfield High School,” Trautmann recalled. “ … Things like our athletic facilities were in tough shape back in 1995, and here we are 22 years later. That’s 22 years of deferred maintenance.”

The city and the school district are in similar positions with respect to an aging infrastructure that needs freshening, Trautmann said.

“We’re a city that was built in the 1950s, and a lot of that maintenance is coming due,” he explained.

Keeping up with the neighbors

Proponents of the school district’s referendums point to neighboring communities whose per-pupil levies eclipse Richfield’s. For many of them, “what you’re asking for, is not even equal to what they’re getting right now, but it’s keeping us in the fight,” Trautmann said.

With voters’ blessing on the operating levy, the district would be authorized to collect from taxpayers $1,414.60 per pupil.

Unowsky also highlighted the difference in per-pupil funding as he explained the referendums to the council. Following his levy presentation, he ceded the podium to a district mother who made an appeal to her peers.

Past support of school levies have helped the district take a number of positive steps, according to Tina Lavin, chair of Citizens for a Quality Community, a group of Richfield parents who are promoting the levies’ passage.

The high school has increased access to college credit courses, the middle school has initiated extra support classes, the district is collaborating with the University of Minnesota and the Mayo Clinic to enhance STEM curriculum, and students enjoy increased access to technology such as Chromebooks and iPads, Lavin noted.

“These are just a few of the services that the district can provide as direct results of the community’s past support of general operating levies and the 2013 renewal of the technology levy,” she said.

Voters have another opportunity to provide critical resources to the schools, while also helping themselves directly, Lavin added.

“If our district falls too far behind the other school districts, we as a community become less attractive to home buyers. What’s the typical homebuyer looking for? Strong schools,” she asserted.

“ … The school buildings were built while Eisenhower was in office, and they have served our community well for the last 60 years.”

But they need maintenance, Lavin said,  comparing that reality to the challenges facing Richfield homeowners. “Much like our Richfield homes, our school buildings are soundly built, but it’s really time to update them, just like we’ve all done to our homes over the last 50 years,” Lavin said.

There is also the less immediately tangible reward of ensuring a generation is adequately educated, Councilmember Edwina Garcia noted. “The benefit that we’re going to reap from these kids that are educated under this system – you just can’t put a price on it,” Garcia said.

Officials from the city and the school district have in recent years been calling for enhanced cooperation between the two public entities. As November approaches, city leaders are throwing all their weight behind that approach.

It’s a development, Unowsky said, that “makes me know that our city will rise together – schools and city as one large team and one large partnership.”

Follow Andrew Wig on Twitter @RISunCurrent.