MARSHALL - Some say it takes a village to raise a child. When it comes to the education of children, that certainly seems to be the case, especially in the past decade.
Nearly 90 percent of Minnesota school districts currently have operating levies, including Marshall Public Schools. Through a combination of factors - including rising operational costs, the state's shifting financial support and the need to keep up with technology - the majority of schools have been forced to rely on support from their communities.
The same is true for Marshall, which passed a $675 referendum amount in November of 2011. While the district has prided itself on being financially responsible - and has prestigious budget awards to back it up - Marshall is at a crossroad.
Educators have identified two focus areas that need to be addressed in the near future, which has led the district to ask the community for additional support, in the amount of $150 per pupil unit.
"The two areas are school security and safety measures, as well as technology in education," Marshall Superintendent Klint Willert said. "Those are the two fundamental pieces we are centered on as we talk about what we're presenting to the community this fall. If the referendum doesn't pass, we'll need to evaluate our capital outlay budget, and there may be some other projects, that we may have otherwise done, that may not happen."
Willert noted that the district, for example, has some parking and driving areas that are in serious disrepair and need improvements.
School referendums around the area
The Marshall School District isn't the only area district having a levy referendum in November. The public school districts in Ivanhoe, Tracy and Wabasso are also seeking new levies:
Ivanhoe - The Ivanhoe School District is asking to increase its operating referendum. The current per-pupil levy of $1,340.93 would be revoked and replaced with a $1,845 per-pupil levy with a term of 10 years.
Tracy - Tracy Area Public Schools will have a two-question referendum concerning building improvement projects. The first question will be whether the school board should issue a $2.035 million general obligation bond to pay for improvements at Tracy Area High School and Tracy Area Elementary School. The bond would have a term of 10 years, help pay for projects including building repairs, parking lot and sidewalk replacements and repairs or replacements to the high school track.
The second question will be whether the school district should collect a capital projects levy of about $1 million over 10 years. The levy would pay for roofing and maintenance costs on school buildings.
Wabasso - The Wabasso Public School District is asking to renew part of its existing operating referendum and to revoke and replace another part. An existing referendum of $485.25 per pupil, which was set to expire in 2013, would be renewed. A referendum of $499.85 per pupil, set to expire in 2017, would be revoked and replaced with a new authorization of $1,053.11 per pupil. The proposed new referendum authorization would last 10 years, starting in 2014.
"Those projects would probably have to go by the wayside because we are moving forward with the safety and security measures, and we do need to make these advancements and investments in technology," he said. "That's going to be a discussion we'll have with the school board, to make those determinations and prioritize those decisions out. But we're hitting such a critical point now in educational technology, so we have to make those tough decisions."
THE IMPACT OF THE REFERENDUM QUESTION
Marshall voters are being asked to support the additional operating levy by checking "yes" on the Nov. 5 ballot. Despite being the only question posed to district voters this fall, the educators are encouraging people to get out and vote. The polling stations will be open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. at the Marshall National Guard Armory.
"We have the challenge of funding these measures, but doing so without adversely impacting some of the other programming supports that we have had and continue to have in the district," Willert said "We're trying to be very sensible, very practical but also trying to do the right thing."
While it's never easy to ask for financial support from the community, the timing for the operating levy question is good for a number of reasons. The biggest reason is that most taxpayers would ultimately see a net decrease despite the additional $150 amount.
"The referendum is for four years," Willert said. "It's not for an extended amount of time. And even if this passes, it yields a net tax decrease for property taxpayers. Through a variety of factors, our district's overall tax impact is going down pretty significantly this next year. Those factors include some action by the state and also action by our school board."
Marshall School business director Bruce Lamprecht explained that taxpayers would reap the benefits of the 2013 state legislature's property tax reform.
"In essence, they have provided more state aid, state equalization aid, which really, favorably impacts the local property taxpayer," Lamprecht said. "That's one of the elements of making this a situation where you end up having your taxes reduced, even if, in fact, this question for $150 would pass."
Lamprecht noted that Location Equity Revenue was also a major component to the equation.
"Location Equity Revenue also came from the state Legislature in 2013, and that equals $212 per pupil unit," he said. "That revenue provides a combination of state aid and levy, and it does, in fact, reduce our local levy."
The third aspect that factors in is the school board's refinancing of the district's debt service. The refunding resulted in approximately $300,000 in annual savings to tax payers.
"Because of the refunding, a $150,000 estimated market value residential homestead would see an impact of $25 reduction for taxes payable in 2014," Lamprecht said. "While the immediate impact for the $150 question would be a $46 increase, the Location Equity Revenue drops that number down to $8. Then, because of the refinancing, it comes down to a $17 decrease."
So while the ballot implies that a person is voting for a tax increase, which is technically correct, the overall impact is actually a school tax decrease for individuals at this time, Lamprecht said.
"This is information that comes from Ehlers, our financial consultant, and it's been a challenge to try and explain, but it is a reality that it amounts to a net decrease," he said.
When asked by board members about the current levy amount ($675) in comparison to other districts across Minnesota, Willert gathered multiple examples. The group average for neighboring districts was $990.
"I think it's important to put it into context," Willert said. "Even with the additional $150, Marshall is below the state average of $921."
Compared to the group average of the combined districts that currently make up the Southwest and South Central conferences ($955), Marshall would still be on the low end ($825) even if the questions passes.
"We didn't want to have any significant tax impact to our local taxpayer," Lamprecht said. "So $150 really fit the bill. It would generate about $400,000 a year, and it would expire at the same time as our other operating referendum."
Nearly 50 other school districts in Minnesota are also going to their voters for support in November. There's no way to know what the group average will be until after the vote, but Marshall's $675 is currently shy of the group average ($716) when measured against comparative-sized districts as well.
"I think we have a pretty solid track record of doing what we say we're going to do with the funding, too," Willert said. "We've been very committed to following through on those things and making those things happen after we said we were going to."
MAINTAINING A STRONG TRADITION
Willert noted that the district has a proud tradition of providing a wide array of quality educational opportunities for the students in safe learning environments, and that is something that he would like to see continue. The funding of essential programs through operating referendums in the past have provided a strong foundation for the Marshall students.
"We're at a 99 percent graduation rate, and our students feel like they're pretty well-prepared for those next phases of life," Willert said. "Not only that, we have a great deal of pride that goes into our activities. I know that's historically, been an important piece as well. All those things are funded through district operating dollars."
Marshall extracurricular activities have made 55 state appearances in the last five years. The district has also become nationally competitive in marching band, speech and Business Professionals of America. Academically, the students also do well, with an average 22.7 on the ACT composite score.
More than 73 percent of 2013 graduates also said that they were planning to attend a four-year college, with an additional 18 percent committing to a two-year technical or community college.
Technology has had a dynamic impact on the educational system, both good, because of the unlimited potential, and bad, because of the time and cost involved.
"It's what we call a 21st century learning experience in our schools," Willert said. "Technology is fundamental in what we're doing in education, to ensure we're equipping our students with the right experiences, the right tools and the right opportunities to be successful going forward."
At an informal presentation Thursday morning, Willert quoted John Dewey, a longtime progressive educator, saying: "If we teach today as we taught yesterday, we rob our children of tomorrow."
At Marshall, educators don't want that to happen. Gradually, the district has implemented pilot programs but has not financially been able to bring those opportunities to scale, though it's something they feel is necessary.
"A little over a year ago, (Education Secretary) Arne Duncan said that school districts need to move away from hardcopy textbooks," Willert said. "That has really driven what we're doing in terms of technology in the school district."
ENHANCED SAFETY NEEDS
The massacre of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., spurred a nationwide debate about school safety, including districts in southwest Minnesota.
"It really changed the dynamics of how we look at this idea of school safety and security in our school buildings," Willert said. "It forced us to have a conversation about what we need to do to enhance some things."
Willert's presentation, along with depictions of proposed security improvements in four of the five public schools, can be found on the school website at: www.marshall.k12.mn.us/2013referendum. Larger displays can be found at the Marshall-Lyon County Library. Designs for Marshall Area Technical Education Center are being incorporated separately.
"Each of the artist's renditions show how we would create the environment, where essentially the front doors would remain open and the interior vestibule doors would close and be locked during school business hours," Willert said. "Any visitors who come to the school would then be funneled through a new door cut into the wall that would enter into the main office area of each of the respective schools, where they would then complete a visitor pass and receive permission to enter into the main corridors of the building."
Right now, parents and visitors can walk into the building and immediately have full access to the main corridors without being required to stop by the office.
"This would force that issue," Willert said. "We're just trying to emphasize this information so people will understand how those entrances change to ensure that we're giving a maximum opportunity to provide a safe and secure learning experience for our students."