City council supports Richfield Public Schools levy referendum

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Superintendent Steven Unowsky spoke at the League of Women Voters school board candidate forum about the levy referendum for Richfield Public Schools on Sept. 29 at City Hall. (SUN CURRENT STAFF PHOTO BY CAM BONELLI)
Superintendent Steven Unowsky spoke at the League of Women Voters school board candidate forum about the levy referendum for Richfield Public Schools on Sept. 29 at City Hall. (SUN CURRENT STAFF PHOTO BY CAM BONELLI)

The Richfield City Council voted unanimously to approve the resolution supporting the Richfield Public Schools levy referendum at its Sept. 26 meeting.

Councilmember Edwina Garcia said the city is always making investments in Richfield’s community.

“Education has always been a value that we hold high,” Garcia said. “Investing in our students is investing in the future. We must continue to support our schools, our teachers our community and most importantly our students.”

Councilmember Michael Howard said he urges residents of Richfield to support the increase in November.

The referendum, which will be organized into two questions on the Nov. 7 ballot, would increase property taxes by an estimated $23.08 per month combined for a $210,000 home. The levy would increase taxes by an estimated $44 annually for a $100,000 home, and the capital bonds would increase taxes by $61 annually for a $100,000 home.

The operational levy directly impacts students through hiring licensed teachers and expanding course options for students. Richfield currently receives $964.40 per student. The capital bond levy is comparable to a home-equity loan and will go towards maintenance of buildings, HVAC, security and improvement of educational spaces such as science labs and common areas.

Richfield Public Schools Superintendent Steven Unowsky said the district is receiving a different amount of funds compared to neighboring districts.

“It starts with how schools are funded in the state of Minnesota,” Unowsky said. “Different communities fund every student differently. For us, one of the conversations we are having with the community is where we stand compared to colleagues.”

Richfield Public Schools receive an operating levy of $392 to $1,075 less per student than adjacent districts.

“One of the complaints we hear most frequently is that we have large class sizes in Richfield,” Unowsky said. “We have some pretty significant class size concerns. In elementary, our largest class size is 31, and at present, we have some high school classes in the low 40s. We as a district are receiving less than our neighboring districts.”

To research the needs Richfield residents wanted to address within Richfield Public Schools, the district conducted a survey of 600 residents by phone. Residents indicated class size as a major concern.

In a Metro ECSU study of school year class size patterns from kindergarten to sixth grade, classroom averages from the 2016-17 school year dropped. More than 35 schools in the Twin Cities metro area were used for the study.

According to the study, kindergarten, first grade, second grade and ungraded or combination classrooms reported the lowest levels in five years while also finding that class sizes increased by grade level.

Kindergarten classes averaged 20.7 students per room, first grade averaged 21.8, and second grade averaged 23.3. The study found that third-grade class sizes averaged 24.5, fourth grade averaged 25.9, fifth grade averaged 26.6 and sixth grade 26.7 from 2016-17. Health education courses had the highest average class size of 30.6 students per class with physical education coming second at 30.4 students per class.

The district will use the operational levy to hire more teachers and reduce class sizes.

“Our top priority with the operational levy is to reduce class sizes,” Unowsky said. “Most of our budget will go towards teachers. Basically, the question on the ballot boils down to, ‘Would you like to hire more teachers?’”

Property values will play a role in the property tax increase. The annual property tax increase for a $100,000 home in Richfield would reflect a combined increase from the levy and capital bond to $105. However, this could change if property values rise.

“As property values rise, the [levy] will impact taxpayers differently,” Unowsky said. “It’s very difficult to project this change as the housing market changes.”

The Nov. 7 ballot will present two yes or no questions to voters:
• Do residents want to replace the current operating levy of $950 per student to $1,414.60 per student, with this rate applicable for 10 years starting in 2018?
• Do residents want to authorize the district to issue $86.8 million in school bonds for improvements to the schools’ grounds, remodeling facilities, regular maintenance, parking and other building improvements to Richfield Public Schools?

Follow Cam Bonelli Twitter @RISunCurrent.