Column: State’s financing of education necessitates ballot questions
By Steve Schnieder, District 518 WORTHINGTON -- On Tuesday, Aug. 14, voters in the Worthington School District will go to the polls once again to vote on a plan to address our growing need for more space and improved facilities for our students. ...
By Steve Schnieder, District 518
WORTHINGTON - On Tuesday, Aug. 14, voters in the Worthington School District will go to the polls once again to vote on a plan to address our growing need for more space and improved facilities for our students. There will be two ballot questions: the first would authorize the school district to build a new intermediate school for grades 3-5, while the second would make upgrades and improvements to Trojan Field.
If you feel like this isn’t the first time you have voted on a referendum in recent years, you are right. This is the third bond referendum in recent years, with local residents denying approval to two earlier proposals to construct a new high school and make other improvements. This year’s proposal would build a smaller school (900 students) and shift grades between Prairie Elementary and Middle School to address space problems that we expect to continue for the predictable future.
So why do we have to do this more than once? That’s an excellent question, and it is caused by the way that the state finances public education. Most of the money for operating our schools, such as teachers’ salaries and classroom materials, comes from the State of Minnesota. There are local levies, but they only supplement the substantial contribution from the state.
However, nearly all of the funding for major building repairs and improvements comes from local taxpayers. In order to keep school districts from having to use classroom dollars to fund building improvements, school districts are allowed to tax local property and use that money to repay low-interest bonds that are used to fund construction.
If this sounds a lot like a mortgage, you are correct. A family of four would need to save for many years to be able to pay cash for a home, so they get a mortgage from local banks, move in next week and pay off the house over 15 to 30 years. School construction projects are financed a similar way, allowing today’s students to take advantage of the improvements and the additional space.
Our school district’s operating budget has been well-managed, and our budget reserve reflects the guidelines suggested by state officials and financial advisors. This budget reserve helps protect us during times that the state delays payments to school districts. It also allows us to pay cash for emergency repairs or unusual needs, such as boiler repairs or replacements, air handling unit repairs or replacements, freezer repairs or replacements and items that are not planned as expenditures.
But it would not be wise to fund all building construction projects from the operating budget or reserve funds, as that would require us to cut funding for classroom education and student services in order to pay for the building work. That’s why the state legislature gave school districts bond authority, with the important requirement that local voters approve the funding for more expensive projects.
So, let’s go back to the question. Why are we doing this yet again? School districts aren’t allowed to give local residents choices on the ballot - we cannot offer a menu like a restaurant can. Each plan is proposed separately and voted on by local residents. If one fails, you try a different option.
It would be much easier to offer all of the options during a single election and let voters decide. However, that is not how the law works, so we are back again, proposing a different plan for adding classroom space with a second question that addresses the needs at Trojan Field.
This decision belongs to the voters of our community. Early voting has started at the Nobles County Auditor/Treasurer office. You can find more information about these bond referenda at worthingtonforward.com or call John Landgaard at 372-2172, or send him an email at email@example.com .
In addition, if there is a question you want addressed in this column, let us know.
Steve Schnieder is a District 518 school board member.