Orono schools referendum: A special report

By Sean Miner
[email protected]

A slew of choices face voters heading into this year’s general election on Nov. 8. In addition to selecting officials for elected offices, citizens living within the Orono School District will have two referendum questions, regarding district funding.

Materials released by the school district have provided additional details on these two referendum items. The reasoning behind the questions, as well as their potential impact on taxpayers, have also been documented.

The first question seeks to raise the school district’s per-pupil referendum authorization, that is, taxes paid by members of the community on a per-student basis to cover educational expenses. The figure proposed by the school board and sought on the ballot is $1,975 per pupil, which represents a 29 percent increase over the current authorization of $1,530.05.

That authorization, the ballot notes, would be payable in 2017, and increase to keep pace with inflation in subsequent years. The ballot also stipulates that the actual referendum revenue for any year shall not exceed the statutory maximum for that year.

The second question on the referendum seeks authorization to issue general obligation school building bonds to provide funding for a new multi-purpose indoor activities facility. The facility, projected to cost $27,390,000, would include space for various athletic activities, expanded weight and training rooms and other amenities.

Question 1: Operating Levy

School district materials state that the funding increase in the first ballot question has been requested to keep pace with both inflation and state funding not keeping pace with education costs. Without an increase in funding, the school district is projected to operate at a mounting deficit, year-to-year.

Materials published on the district’s website state that “basic state education funding has dropped by more than $600 per student from 2003 to 2016, when adjusted for inflation and pupil weighting changes.”

“The state, historically and recently, has not increased our funding at the same rate our costs have gone up — that’s why the state allows local levies,” said Mike Bash, a member of the school board. “Acknowledging that, prudent districts like Orono have to go to voters eventually.”

Bash also pointed to sources other than inflation that have contributed to the shortfall. State and federal mandates regarding special education programs, for instance, often do not come with corresponding funds for those programs.

“They’ve mandated that we spend so much, and said they’re going to fund it, and then don’t,” said Bash. “There’s an enormous shortfall that is made up from the general fund budget.”

According to Bash, the levy increase should be characterized as the school keeping pace with an ever-widening gap between state funding and actual expenses. That gap, said Bash, has inevitably cropped up for Orono, just as it has for other schools in similar positions.

“We have a pretty fiscally conservative community, and we have a pretty fiscally conservative board,” said Bash. “As a result, we have a pretty well-managed school district, and we’re doing a good job to keep costs down.

“But state aid has not even remotely kept pace with inflation,” Bash added.

He cited the district’s last levy increase as an example of the district’s conservatism.

“The last time we went to voters to ask for a levy increase, the state had given us authority to ask for a lot more,” said Bash. “We asked for much less — we knew, in the long term, that it would not be enough, but it was enough for then. Now, we’ve reached that future point, where we need to ask for more.

“It’s an example of being fiscally conservative,” added Bash. “Instead of asking for more than what you need, you ask for what you need, right now.”

All told, the levy increase would amount to an additional $1.25 million in school funding annually for the district. According to figures from the district, the owner of a typical residence in the area (valued at $400,000) would pay roughly $13.33 more on a monthly basis, or $160 per year.

The proposed authority would extend for 10 years, and would increase only to keep pace with inflation. Materials from the district also note that qualifying for refunds may reduce the effect the net increase would have on taxpayers as well.

Question 2: Facility construction

The second ballot question seeks funding for the construction of an 80,000-square-foot indoor activities center, which would be attached to Orono High School. Plans for the facility show a multi-purpose gym space with an elevated track, expanded space for free weight and other athletic training, associated locker rooms and additional other spaces.

District materials state that the impact on taxpayers for the facility would be spread over 16 years. The monthly increase in taxes for a home valued at $400,000 would be around $4.08, or $49 per year.

Worth noting is that the figures provided factor in savings from three sets of outstanding bonds the school board recently refinanced. That action is projected to save taxpayers $6.2 million, independent of the success or failure of the referendum question.

This means that, in the event that both questions of the referendum failed, taxpayers would see a slight decrease in their taxes, though the exact decrease was not readily available.

School officials cited the growing need for athletic facilities as the primary factor for the timing of the second referendum question, but pointed to a few others. Current, low interest rates (which prompted the school board to refinance the aforementioned bonds) would aid the construction and financing of the proposed activities center.

According to school officials, the current space available for particularly indoor activities is lacking, and has been for years.

“I would say that our current athletics space is in very good shape — it’s just not enough,” said Justin McCoy, director of facilities and safety at Orono Schools. “It’s well-maintained, it’s just that the quantity is not where the need is.”

This, said McCoy, has led to a variety of logistical challenges and negative effects for student athletes and participants in other programs.

“We’re running later practices than we’d like to see — later than is good for students,” said McCoy. “Right now, it’s not unusual to see practices run into the 10 o’clock hour.”

These practices represent the later end of the practice schedule. McCoy also noted other problems with the lack of space.

“We’re seeing people practice in not-ideal weather conditions outdoor, especially in the spring time,” he said. “Practices may not be taking place, or they may be getting canceled. We just don’t have the space adequate to meet our needs.”

Bucky Mieras, athletics director at Orono Schools, agreed. He noted that interest and participation in activities have steadily increased over the years, but space has not kept pace.

“It’s just been steady — volleyball, we’re up to four levels, same with soccer — we offer every high school activity that the Minnesota State High School League offers except for synchronized swimming,” said Mieras. “It just gets hard, with space and getting people involved. During high school events, you’ve got youth teams practicing at all the other gyms, or fighting to practice early vs. late — it just gets hard on everyone, especially the parents.”

The number of activities vying for limited practice space has left some scheduling difficulties for individuals, as well as teams as a whole, said Mieras.

“There are some students who might sit around until 5, 5:30 practice,” said Mieras. “That means they’re here until 8 at night without going home, having just a snack instead of dinner.”

This space, said officials, pales in comparison to other schools with which Orono teams compete. According to a graphic provided by the district, in terms of number of full gyms, Orono is tied for last in the Wright County Conference, with New London-Spicer, both with four gyms.

By contrast, Waconia, Delano and Rockford each boast 10 gyms apiece. Not far behind is New Prague with nine, as well as Watertown-Mayer, Dassel-Cokato and Annandale with eight.

But, noted Bash, this comparison in itself is not the point of the proposed addition.

“But that’s not the reason to do this — because everybody else has more,” emphasized Bash. “The reason to do it is the acknowledgement that what we have is not adequate for what the community expects. It just sort of validates what we’ve discovered on our own, that we are short on facilities.”

The new facility, Mieras and McCoy agreed, would go a long way toward alleviating these problems. The increased space, said Mieras, would also drive participation in activities. He noted that becoming active outside of the classroom had more benefits than just the physical.

“Studies show that the more students are involved, a lot of those students are some of your highest-achieving students in the classroom,” said Mieras. “There is a correlation between the two. When you have a high amount of involvement, the culture of the building is amazing.”

Those benefits would extend beyond just students, as well.

“It’ll just provide more opportunities, not just for our kids, but for our families,” said Mieras. “It’s not just about one sport or another…They’re looking at a fitness facility, with a walking track — that’s all a community-based idea there.”

That walking track, as well as other parts of the fitness facilities, would be available for use by members of the community apart from the student body, according to the district.

“I think this would be a wonderful addition for our students, but I also think it would be an exceptional addition to our community,” said Bob Tunheim, chair of the Orono School Board. “Just to be able to have a walking track, and a weight room and aerobics facilities that would be available to community members — it’s something we don’t have in Orono.”

From the athletic perspective, the improvements to the training facilities would be substantial, said Mieras.

“We can only accommodate certain numbers — the space isn’t big enough to accommodate some sports teams,” said Mieras. “There are so many pro’s with this.”

McCoy spoke to the careful attention to detail that went into that community-based vision.

“We’ve spent a lot of time, doing a lot of research, to develop the proposal,” said McCoy. “We’ve toured several facilities, and seem them in action. We’ve taken what we feel is the best of what we’ve seen, and incorporated it into a space that is efficient.”

Another 80,000 square feet brings with it increased maintenance costs, from electricity to janitorial staffing. But, said McCoy, those costs would be entirely made up by fees charged to groups for use of the facilities, as is common for activity space rental.

“We have a lot of youth associations that are not associated with the school, but that are serving Orono students,” said McCoy. “Those associations currently pay to use our fields and our gymnasiums. With the increase in facilities, there would also be an increase in those groups using it.”

Instrumental in developing the model for the proposed facility, said McCoy, were similar operations at Delano and St. Michael. Those schools, according to McCoy, make memberships for the facilities available to the public.

Those memberships may be available at a fee, but those details are yet to be determined, and conditional on the referendum passing. Furthermore, the facility would include 4,200 square feet of what McCoy called “flexible educational space”, which would serve a variety of uses.

According to Tunheim, should the measure be approved by voters in November, the first step would be honing in on exactly how each aspect of the facility would be used. If all goes smoothly, construction could begin as early as May of 2017, with hopes of finishing by the next school year in September of 2018, with minimal disruption to school operations.

“There might be some inconvenience — we are planning to move some fields around,” noted Tunheim. “There would be a little bit of a loss of use of fields, but it’s a quick process to put this together.”

For more information on the referendum, click here