by Paul Rignell
Elk River Area School Board members confirmed for administrators that the district should draft a bond referendum for general election ballots next Nov. 4.
The district’s most critical needs may be in the southern third, where teachers and students at the Rogers secondary schools have met for some classes in rooms that were not built as regular classrooms.
However, Board members agree they would want referendum language to address needs throughout the district with broad appeal.
In that case, Supt. Mark Bezek replied that based on when the district would need to certify ballot questions for November, the board must open dialogue with Elk River and Zimmerman residents before the end of this school year to learn their greatest needs and wants.
“(It) is going to have to happen in the next six to eight weeks,” Bezek said.
After spring community meetings, the board will want to reach consensus on what should or should not be sought in the referendum, Bezek added. A united board would give a referendum the best chance for success early in the process, he said.
Rooms overflowing in southern schools
Rogers High School was built 10 years ago with a design capacity for 1,200 students, Bezek told the Star News, but enrollments have grown past capacity by nearly 25 percent and will likely pass 1,500 students by next fall.
During daily class periods when nearly every room is in use, non-technology classes have met in computer labs while other classes have met in converted staff lounges or storage rooms, Bezek added.
“Rogers Middle School is about in the same shape,” he said.
District officials have talked about adding a third wing for classrooms at Rogers High School, plus an expansion at one elementary school. Bezek said that could be at Hassan Elementary School rather than at the Rogers or Otsego K-5 buildings.
In the event those projects were not approved in a referendum, an Attendance Zone Policy Committee that discussed the Rogers area issues earlier this year noted there could be support to address the needs through a lease levy.
The state allows school districts to issue lease levies that equal $162 for every pupil unit in a district. Elk River Schools’ executive director of business services, Greg Hein, told the Star News the formula allows districts to count each student in grades seven through 12 as 1.2 pupil units, which would give District 728 an estimated 14,000 pupil units in 2014-2015 or about $2.27 million to go toward lease levies.
Hein said the district already has about $700,000 in lease levies in place. Bezek said that generally those cover space leasing and rentals at properties not owned by the district, such as use of the Elk River Arena or area golf courses for athletic teams, he said.
Hein said that the Elk River district is in an uncommon position as many other school districts have maxed out their lease levies. However, it would benefit District 728 to fund any projects through a voter referendum rather than through lease levies, he said.
If voters were to approve a bond referendum in support of improvements in Rogers and elsewhere in the district, state dollars would cover 42 percent of those costs, Hein said, whereas district taxpayers would be responsible solely for the bill if issued by lease levy.
Hein explained also that lease levy funding would limit the size of campus expansions. State statute says that a lease levy project cannot increase a building’s size by more than 20 percent, Hein said. A third wing at Rogers High School has been discussed at an estimated 50,000 square feet, he said, but lease levy laws might limit that expansion to 44,000 square feet.
The district’s last attempted bond referendum failed six years ago, and Bezek told the board March 31 that maybe it was best in hindsight, considering the ensuing recession from which the district and its families have since been recovering.
He told the Star News that requests from that referendum may re-appear this year, pending community input.
“It will be interesting to see how needs have changed,” Bezek said.
He noted that supporters of the arts in Rogers and Zimmerman likely would want more than the “cafetoriums” at Rogers Middle School or Zimmerman High School where the layouts include elevated stages at the ends of cafeterias. Bezek noted that Rogers High School, too, is without a performing arts center such as the Zabee Theater in Elk River High School.
The superintendent said there could also be needs for more athletic space throughout the district, but he added that many other schools face that issue.
“That’s not just in our district. Everyone’s battling that,” Bezek said.
Board members were already ranking improvements for a referendum as they spoke March 31. Among them, Sue Farber said she would be more likely to include a request for technology upgrades over athletic projects such as synthetic turf fields.
Board Member Holly Thompson said that the district will need to make optimal use of social media in effort to reach voters. She said many parents may be more likely to watch a 15-minute informational video on YouTube at the end of an evening rather than attend a live forum at 7 p.m.
Farber said the district prepared videos six years ago, but they were not appealing as they featured too many people talking to the camera without enough illustrations of actual needs. This time, “talk (off camera) while you’re showing video (of our sites),” Farber said.
Board colleagues agreed that the district must amend its approach.
“It can’t be what we’ve done in the past,” Board Member Jane Bunting said. “Some of those channels didn’t work.”
“We have to have complete ‘out of the box’ thinking,” Board Member Shane Steinbrecher said. “We know what hasn’t worked in the past.”