On Aug. 3, the Forest Lake Area School Board approved ballot questions for a $750 per pupil operating levy increase and a $9 million arts and athletics facilities bond, both of which will go to the voters on Nov. 7 of this year.
The board heard details regarding a survey of 500 residents performed by the Morris Leatherman Company concerning whether or not a levy or bond would be supported by the community, and the information was enough to convince board members that both measures had a chance for approval.
“Forest Lake is a great place to survey, as we see only a 3 percent non-response rate compared to the industry average of 25,” Morris Leatherman Company president Bill Morris said during the meeting. “Our results show that there is no stop sign on anything. We found that a referendum is definitely doable if carefully orchestrated. It will, however, be more of a challenge than it was in 2015.”
In 2015, voters said yes by a vote of 5,048 to 4,806 to allow the district to bond for $143 million to fund infrastructure improvements at the buildings around the district, as well as a transition to an adjacent junior high and high school campus at the Century Junior High School and the Forest Lake Area High School. A second question on that ballot that voters did not pass (4,679 to 5,136) would have approved bonds for $18 million in athletic and art center improvements.
The Morris Leatherman Company conducted the 500 telephone interviews between July 10 and 20. Those called spent an average of 24 minutes on the phone for the interview, although three respondents talked for over 90 minutes. The most serious issues with the district identified by those surveyed included what they believed to be poor past spending, high taxes and a general lack of funding. Receiving high marks from respondents regarding things that were good about the district were academics, teachers and the variety of programs. When specifically asked about a bond and levy on the November ballot, 43 percent of residents interviewed said they would vote yes for both, and 38 percent said they would not support either. Seven percent responded that they would support only a bond, and 5 percent were in favor of only a levy. Six percent were unsure.
“A large portion of those who responded in the negative to the idea of supporting a bond told us that the $18 million was the deciding factor,” Morris said. “Had that number been lower, we may have seen some different results.”
The latest iteration of the community task force charged with weighing the need for a bond and levy against the probability of passage also agreed that the $18 million was too tough a pill for voters to swallow. That group suggested a $9 million bond and an operating levy of $500 per pupil unit.
Before going to a vote, board members each spoke to their feelings about what the next steps should be. The first issue addressed was the bond.
“I am comfortable with the $9 million number,” Luke Odegaard said. “I think the improvements are definitely needed, and this money will touch a wide variety of facilities used by many different students.”
Odegaard said he was against voting to make the bond and levy contingent upon each other.
“We need both,” he said. “If one fails, we are just going to come back again and again and again. I’m not going to turn up my nose at someone who might want the bond, but not the levy.”
Julie Corcoran was concerned about going to voters with a bond for fear that it might mean a no vote for the levy if voters are handed too much all at once.
“I struggle with the bond issue,” she said. “I have to say I am not in support of a bond right now. I am concerned about the levy. I want to see that pass and then see where we’re at before moving forward with a bond.”
Rob Rapheal disagreed with Corcoran.
“We have grown too used to the stadium being in bad shape,” he said. “That and a lot of other things covered under this $9 million are things that we have been talking about fixing for years. Saying no to going out for a bond will let down the folks who did support it the last time around.”
Rapheal had a change of heart regarding the contingency issue.
“When we went to voters the last time, I was in favor of (making the arts and athletics bond contingent on the general facility bond),” he said “I worry, though, that we have built up bad blood in the community because we always make the extra things contingent on the passing of our major bond.”
After discussing the bond, the board moved to the topic of asking voters for an operating levy increase. Rapheal has been very vocal about his distaste for the politics of school funding.
“The state funding is plain and simply not keeping up,” he said. “The passage of this levy is critical for us to be able to do what we need to do. This will put us in a financially stable place where we can do well what we do well.”
Jill Olson was in favor of the levy, but worried about the specific numbers.
“I think I am more comfortable with 500 per pupil unit,” she said. “I think we can go for 750, but we are going to have to be very specific in our communication with the community.”
Member Karen Morehead echoed some of Olson’s comments.
“I want to make sure we have the very best chance of seeing this thing pass,” she said. “I think with 500, we have our very best chance.”
Jeff Peterson, who served as the board liaison to the community task force, said the need for a significant operating levy increase is pressing.
“The cuts we are being forced to make are ridiculous,” he said. “I mean, to cut back on janitor supplies and programs that provide aid for homeless families in the district and to see our hardworking staff have to take cuts just isn’t right.”
Odegaard spoke to the heart of the matter.
“It is obvious to me that $500 is not going to cut it,” he said. “The $750 is toeing the line of not cutting it, and I would much rather see $1,000, but we need to be realistic as well. We can’t come back in three years and ask for more. That is not an option.”
Peterson moved to adopt a resolution to go to voters in November for an operating levy increase of $750 per pupil unit for a period of eight years and a bond of $9 million over a period of 20 years, with one not being contingent on the other. That measure passed by unanimous vote.
“I have a 20-year-old who went through this school system and a 9-year-old who is here now,” Peterson said. “My 9-year-old is not getting what my 20-year old got, and that isn’t right or fair.”
According to district Business Director Larry Martini, the operating levy increase will cost taxpayers $9.47 per month per $100,000 of home value for the eight-year period. The facilities bond will provide for a tax increase of $0.92 per $250,000 of home value per month over the 20-year period. The option for both will come to taxpayers on Nov. 7.