Dist. 728 takes its story on the road

Superintendent Mark Bezek at one of the many forums where he presented levy information.
Superintendent Mark Bezek at one of the many forums where he presented levy information.

by Jim Boyle

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Elk River Area School District Superintendent Mark Bezek shared a message of mission, core values, strategies and the future of the school district with area legislative candidates this past Monday night.

He also talked about the pair of operating levies before District 728 voters — one a renewal “for survival” and a second for a shot at “competitiveness” to stem the tide of the district’s first enrollment drop in more than 15 years that happened last year.

Midway through his report in the community room at Elk River High School, he was able to vent a little about the state’s “inequitable system” of funding schools, and the opportunity gap between school districts like Elk River and others that have paid off their buildings and reap the benefit of commercial property wealth.

The Elk River district, long known for its explosive growth, has added more than 3,500 students since 2000. Such an increase is more than the enrollment of 80% of all schools districts in the state.

The district built new buildings in an effort to keep up, and is now challenged by  a $20-plus million mortgage payment on school facilities while remaining focuses on improving test scores and student success. Now the district finds itself competing for students.

It is at a disadvantage compared to metro schools and schools across the state. It gets $9,548 per student in its general fund. The state average is $10,538. The metro average is $11,291.

Complicating matters are operating levies that range from a few hundred dollars per student for some districts to nearly $2,000 per student for others.

“Our people have done a phenomenal job,” he told legislators. “But we’re not going to have the tools to keep up (without passage of these two levies).

“We lost 180 kids last year. We’re starting to lose kids because other districts are offering things we don’t have.”

Bezek has been all over the district in recent weeks to get the word out about the levoes. The school district has beefed up its website with information. School board members have been writing letters to the editor. And on Monday night this past week, Bezek left the meeting with legislators to make a presentation to the Elk River City Council for their benefit and the benefit of the cable television viewing audience.

Bezek has been criss-crossing the district to get before chambers of commerce,  governmental bodies like Elk River’s council, service clubs, classrooms and neighborhood coffee parties.

Bezek provides an overview of where the district has been and updates on the recently completed strategic plan and its first steps.  At the heart of his discussion, however, are the scenarios that could play out after Nov. 6.

He talks about if the levies pass. He talks about if only the renewal passes. And, in a third scenario, he talks about if both levies fail.

If both pass, an existing operating levy of about $386 per student, or $5.75 million, is renewed for another 10 years and a second question for another $400 per student, or $6 million, adds a free all-day, everyday kindergarten program, curriculum, technology and a few million dollars to limit the amount of projected budget reductions that will need to be made.

“Even with both passing we’re projecting a $2 million deficit,” Bezek says. “We think we can get at that through efficiencies, cuts and fund balance.”

If the first question passes and the second one fails, the school district is looking at a $5 million deficit and nothing new in the area of kindergarten programming, technology and curriculum. (The second question can’t pass without passage of the first question.  Budget cuts to the tune of 100 teachers would make it nearly impossible to add new programming, Bezek said.)

Left to right: School board members Sue Farber, Janelle Henry, Holly Thompson, Jane Bunting, Tony Walter and Shane Steinbrecher at a forum Monday, Oct. 15.
Left to right: School board members Sue Farber, Janelle Henry, Holly Thompson, Jane Bunting, Tony Walter and Shane Steinbrecher at a forum Monday, Oct. 15.

If both fail, Bezek says the district is looking at a $12 million budget deficit and nothing new in the area of kindergarten programming, technology and curriculum.

“For every $1 million, that’s about 20 people,” Bezek said. “If both levies fail, we will need to cut about $12 million or about 250 people.”

He says it would be devastating after all the progress made on test scores and the promise created by the newly minted strategic plan.

Substantial cutting would have already been done had it not been for federal stimulus dollars, Bezek said.

Voters are not expected to see a change in their taxes based on passage of Question No. 1. Question No. 2 will cost the owner of a $150,000 home about $14 a year. For the owner of a $300,000 home, it will cost about $27 a year.

Randy Anderson, the director of business and operations, believes about 30 percent of the tax load can be eliminated by re-financing district debt. That process has started.

The Elk River Area School District, once known for its growth, is now becoming known for its debt.

“Building went flat, people stopped coming into the district and now we have this huge debt and the money’s not going into the classroom,” Bezek said.

Districts with property wealth have an advantage. “It’s a case of the rich getting richer. Property wealthy districts might have 80 cents on the dollar going to the classroom, whereas we have 20 cents.”

The difference plays out in the number of opportunities students are afforded, Bezek said.

Bezek says a district of its size should produce four Merit scholars annually, not one every other year that it averages now.

“It’s not that other districts have smarter kids or better teachers,” Bezek said. “It’s the programs.”

And it’s because of programs that people are starting to choose options other than Elk River schools when it comes to deciding where their children go to school. All-day kindergarten programs are but one example, and if the district loses 40 kids that’s a $2 million loss. If those kids don’t come back, its a $2 million loss for 13 years.

“People are demanding all-day kindergarten, magnets, foreign languages in the elementaries and International Baccalaureate programs,” Bezek said. “We’re starting to lose kids to other districts because they’re offering these things.

The school district has crafted a strategic plan to take the district to another level and be better able to compete on the demand side of the equation.

Bezek lights up when he touts the work of 300 people across the district  who had a hand in developing the district’s strategic plan over the past three years. He hands out a tri-fold that summarizes the group’s work.

It lays out the five-year plan in terms of Year 1 assignments and those that should follow in the next two to five years. It also highlights the district’s objectives with all of it, the strategies that will be used and the strategic delimiters.

The district will not adopt any new program or service unless it is consistent with the district’s core values and it’s accompanied by the alignment or significant reduction of current practice.

This will get considerably easier — or difficult — depending on the outcome of the levies on Nov. 6.

“We’re very good at what we do,” Bezek said. “But there’s a point where we reach our end.”