Eden Prairie residents likely won’t be asked to approve a school operating levy referendum this November, despite the findings of a community survey indicating that they might be open to the idea.
Eden Prairie’s school board discussed a possible referendum at its June 28 meeting after board Chair Adam Seidel broached the subject, asking Superintendent Josh Swanson to outline the steps necessary to add a referendum question to the Nov. 2 special election.
That special election is scheduled to elect a board member to fill the spot vacated by Veronica Stoltz, who resigned at the end of May.
Swanson told the board that it would need to act by Aug. 20 in order to add the question to the Nov. 2 election. Operating levies must be conducted in November elections, he said.
Positive survey results
Results of a recent community survey conducted in June by market research firm Morris Leatherman Co. appear to suggest that Eden Prairie residents may be amenable to a referendum under the right circumstances, according to Peter Leatherman, the company’s CEO.
What would happen if the district asked these respondents to approve a property tax increase without defining a specific purpose? “Of those that have an opinion, you’re a perfect wash,” Leatherman told the board via a Zoom presentation. Twenty-four percent would vote against all and 24% who would vote for all. Fifty percent said they would vote for some and against some.
But 65% of survey respondents said that they would support or strongly support a $225 per pupil unit operating levy referendum that would be used to provide the district with financial stability to avoid budget cuts. Respondents were told that a referendum of that size would result in a tax increase of $7 per month for a $400,000 home, Leatherman said.
A random sample of 400 Eden Prairie School District households participated in telephone interviews that averaged 13 minutes in length between June 3 and 18, according to Leatherman. The survey’s margin of error is +/- 5%, he said.
Earlier in the June 28 meeting, the board approved a fiscal year 2021-22 budget that reflects projected increasing deficits over the next five years.
The size of those deficits may change somewhat due to the State Legislature’s recently approved budget bill that increases school funding by more than 5% over the next two years, according to Jason Mutzenberger, executive director of business services.
In addition, the district is still waiting for about $10 million in federal COVID-19 funds that will be spent over the next few years, Mutzenberger said. That money is in addition to $3 million received as part of the CARES Act, he said.
But Swanson said that continuing financial stability will require action at some point.
While the recently approved increases in state funding are “good news,” Swanson said, “The reality is we still do have a structural issue. It’s not going to be one thing that solves that. It’s going to be a stacking of different strategies over time.”
An operating levy referendum is one of those strategies, he said.
“The sooner you put strategies in place, the longer we can create financial stability,” he said. “The longer you wait to put strategies in place, the harder that gets.”
Seidel asked the board if it wanted to schedule a workshop in July to discuss the possibility of putting an operating levy referendum on the Nov. 2 ballot or wait another year?
Three board members – Kim Ross, C.J. Strehl and Debjyoti Dwivedy – expressed specific concerns with the effort’s timing.
“I don’t have any interest in having that conversation in July,” Strehl said. “To me, this is a year-long process.” He said he would be interested in a conversation about 2022.
“I wish we had started talking about this back in February,” Ross said. She said she is open to having the conversation, but is not optimistic about putting forth a referendum vote in 2021.
“The (survey) numbers were great but the potential downside of running it and failing scares me,” she said.
She said that involving the community in the referendum process is necessary and time-consuming and that trying to move forward with a mid-July workshop would increase that difficulty.
“We (would) basically have … three weeks to get our crap together to be able to line up all the logistics of running a referendum this fall,” she said.
Dwivedy said he didn’t realize the board would be discussing a potential referendum that night, saying “I don’t like surprises.”
He said he wasn’t opposed to a discussion but added, “I’m not a big fan of rushing a referendum.”
The bottom line, he said, “Do we even have time?”
Seidel, sensing what he described as “significant trepidation” from his fellow board members on the topic, brought the discussion to a close.
“Whatever we do on this topic,” he said, “we want to do it unified and with some shared enthusiasm. I don’t think I’m really hearing that tonight.”
Seidel asked Swanson if he wanted to make a final push on the topic.
“No. No. Honestly I don’t,” Swanson said, laughing. He said his goal was to give the board information and the opportunity to discuss the topic, but agreed that board unity would be an important factor in any referendum’s success.
“It is incredibly important that at whatever point the board does decide (it needs) to take the next step, it is really critical that you are all on the same page,” Swanson said.
The board’s next meeting is scheduled for Monday, July 26 at 7:30 a.m. to vote on a resolution to conduct a special election on Nov. 2, 2021 to fill the vacant board seat.