Local voters had the opportunity to learn about the upcoming Eden Prairie Schools (EPS) referendum in a town hall hosted Tuesday, Oct. 4, at Central Middle School (CMS).
Superintendent Josh Swanson spoke about the current state of the district’s schools, provided an overview of the referendum, showed an informational video, then answered several questions from the small but attentive audience.
Attendees also were able to talk with Swanson, district staff, Eden Prairie School Board member C.J. Strehl, and fellow residents before and after the event. Since the event was held over the dinner hour, pizza and childcare were provided.
Swanson said he wanted to share information about the referendum so that Eden Prairie voters can “make a really informed decision, and have a voice in what the future of our schools looks like.”
He began by talking about how community support through levy funding has enabled EPS to be one of the strongest districts in the state. He cited increased access to early childhood programming, smaller class sizes, and outstanding third grade reading scores as some of the district’s strengths.
Swanson said this community support has funded expanded course offerings at CMS and the high school, including advanced classes and enrichment opportunities. It also helped EPS quickly and successfully pivot to serve students and staff during pandemic-era distance learning and build and roll out EP Online.
“There are absolutely fantastic things going on because of our really talented staff, but also because of the support the community has shown for our schools for a long time,” he said.
‘Stability and excellence for our future’
Next, Swanson introduced the two referendum questions, explaining that they are “levies for learning” that directly support learning opportunities for EPS students. He said these are vital to “stability and excellence for our future.”
He stressed that these levy questions differ from the bond referendum held in 2019, which helped fund “tangible goods” such as facilities, buses, building security, CMS construction, and flexible classroom furniture.
A bond cannot be used to hire teachers and staff, or for supporting programs, he said. He added that to differentiate the two, it was helpful to remember “bonds for buildings, levies for learning.”
Swanson explained that the operating levy, which pays for learning and programs, has not been updated since 2014, and the capital projects levy, which pays for technology, has not been renewed since 2013. Both are set to expire at the end of the 2024-25 school year.
Reasons for the referendum
Swanson explained that about 70% of the district’s funding comes from the state. However, while state funding has increased over the past 20 years, it has not kept up with inflation.
He said it has created an ongoing and increasing gap in the funding EPS needs to provide a quality education. In 2023, Swanson estimated this gap will be approximately $12 million.
This is where the referendum is necessary, according to Swanson. He said the district needs to ask the community to make up that gap in state aid by adjusting or maintaining property taxes.
Swanson said EPS has managed to extend the current operating levies three years beyond what had been expected by being careful stewards of school funds and through efficiencies such as installing solar panels on EPS building roofs. However, the district is now spending down its fund balance, which is not sustainable.
He said that without asking for and receiving additional community support, the schools are now at the point where they will be unable to maintain the current level of programs and services, and would have to make reductions.
Swanson encouraged Eden Prairie taxpayers to compare their school taxes to nearby districts. He shared a chart showing that Eden Prairie school taxes are below the state average and significantly lower than many surrounding districts.
What’s on the ballot?
Swanson said that EPS is asking voters to approve a two-question referendum.
Approving Question 1 would revoke the current operating levy of $1,815.27 per student and replace it with a levy of $2,075.27 per student. The tax impact would be less than $8 per month in property taxes for an Eden Prairie home valued at $430,000.
Approving Question 2 would renew the previously-approved capital project levy at the same level. This levy funds technology infrastructure such as student devices, classroom technologies, and teacher training. Passing this levy has no additional property tax impact.
These proposals aim to strengthen the district’s financial position so it can continue providing a strong education to students and attract and retain top-quality staff and teachers. Swanson said that if these levies are passed, EPS can avoid cuts to programs and technology for another five years.
He encouraged everyone to vote early if possible, to share information about the referendum with others in the community, and to reach out to the district with any questions.
Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 8, but early voting has already begun. You can vote from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday to Friday at Eden Prairie City Center, 8080 Mitchell Road, through Nov. 7, as well as from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 5.
Following his presentation, Swanson invited audience members to ask questions. Queries covered a range of topics, including state education funding formulas, how EPS levies compare to other districts, where to find a tax impact calculator, how the district pays for open enrollment students, EP Online, building space capacity, class size targets, community support for previous referendums, and district staffing and salaries.
Asked what the district would do if the referendum failed, Swanson said EPS would consider that after the election. However, he said it would have to begin a budget “reduction process” that would probably cut about $1 million in the first year.
If that happened, he said EPS would ask voters to pass a referendum next year and would reach out to the community for input as part of that process.
In closing, Swanson said, “Thank you for coming and learning about this. I would ask that you share with friends, neighbors, and other folks in the community, and go vote so you can get to have your voice heard.”
Next referendum town hall will be Oct. 26
The town hall was the second of three public information sessions offered by the district. The first, a Zoom session, was held on Sept. 28. Registration is now open for a third session, to be held at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 26, via Zoom.
Community members who cannot attend these events or have more questions are invited to check out referendum information on the district’s website, contact the district, or reach out to the school board.
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