Eden Prairie Schools Superintendent Josh Swanson recommended that the school board prepare referendums renewing both the district’s technology and operating levies for this November’s election.
Additionally, Swanson recommended the board support increasing the operating levy from $1,642 per pupil unit to $1,899 per pupil unit. This would result in approximately a $7.50 per month increase in taxes on a house valued at $430,000.
Those recommendations occurred during the Monday, April 25, Eden Prairie School Board meeting.
Swanson stated that this expanded funding would be used to offset the impact inflation is causing and allow the schools to continue the education initiatives they have been pursuing.
He reported to the board about the district’s use of the existing levy funds and their projected needs over the next several years.
The district is currently using funds from two different voter-approved referendums. In November 2013, voters passed a capital projects levy focused on technology. This levy generates approximately $7.9 million each year and is used to provide devices to students, enhanced data management technologies, and staff training.
Swanson stressed that the district’s investment in this technology gave it an advantage in responding to the pandemic over the last two years. The technology levy will expire in June 2025.
The district’s operating levy brings in $16.2 million each year. These funds are used to maintain class sizes and assist the district in providing specialized support for students.
When this levy was passed in 2014, the district committed to identifying at least $500,000 in efficiencies each year, which it has succeeded at doing, Swanson said. Additionally, Swanson highlighted how the intent of the operating levy was to provide stable funding over a five-year period, which the district has now exceeded by several years. The operating levy is also slated to expire in 2025.
Jason Mutzenberger, the district’s executive director of business services, shared the district’s success while keeping its tax impact on residents lower than the average of several neighboring communities. Mutzenberger also shared projections that showed the district would need to begin making multi-million dollar budget cuts as early as next year without renewing these levies.
Mutzenberger stated that the funding the district receives from the state is not keeping up with inflation. This gap is expected to increase given the higher amounts of inflation currently at play in the broader economy. Projections for the 2023 school year place the gap at $795 per student, or approximately 11% of the per-pupil funding needed.
Swanson made the case to the board that renewing these levies would allow the district to continue to keep class sizes small, invest in new technologies, and focus on providing personalized education to students. The operating levy would also provide money to mental health resources and reading development programs that are currently relying on COVID-19 response funding slated to expire next year.
This spring, a survey found that the community broadly supported the proposed levy increase. According to survey results, 55% of respondents supported the proposal, 15% strongly supported it, 25% were opposed, and 5% were undecided.
School board members briefly discussed the recommendation, although they reserved a more in-depth discussion for future meetings. The board requested Swanson prepare draft ballot language that the district would recommend for November.
Board member Debjyoti Dwivedy asked why the district was recommending both levies be brought on the same ballot.
Swanson responded that it is always better to minimize the number of times ballot questions are brought before the community. This is because advocacy campaigns for referendums are resource-intensive for the district. Additionally, he stated that coming multiple times to the community for money can drain public goodwill.
Board vice-chair Aaron Casper indicated he liked the idea of bringing a referendum to the community during a mid-term election campaign. He said the higher turnout would ensure that more community members get to weigh in on the proposals.
Board member Charles Strehl asked Swanson if it would be possible to offset the increased operating levy by reducing the technology levy. Swanson said he would not recommend doing so because technology costs are harder to predict and can sometimes result in a heavy one-time bill.
The school board must decide by its June 27 meeting if it will bring referendums to voters on Nov. 8. Currently, board members plan to discuss the referendums more in-depth at their May 23 meeting.