Majority of Owatonna school board eyeing 2013 levy

/ 15 May 2012 / jennifer

Derek Sullivan, Owatonna People’s Press, May 15, 2012 –

OWATONNA — As the discussion on whether the Owatonna school district asks voters for additional funds continues, it’s now looking as if the voters won’t get their say until 2013.

During Monday’s school board meeting, both board chair Don McCann and vice-chair Bill Bernard publicly voiced concerns over a Nov. 6, 2012, ballot initiative. Previously, board members Vicki Jensen and David Anderson have said they are not ready to support a 2012 vote on an operating levy.

To go forward with a levy vote, four board members must vote yes. Currently, only KJ Wall and Jose Herrera are looking at this November. If the voters do approve an increased operating levy, the district might not have to follow through on a planned $1.2 million budget cut in spring 2011. Wall and Hererra would like to avoid laying off teachers again next year.

On April 11, the board approved cutting $1.8 million from its budget, which included staff layoffs at the elementary, junior high and high school levels.

“I’m not willing to give up on November yet,” Wall said during Monday’s meeting. “The fact is that we don’t know what the community wants yet or what the $1.2 million in cuts will look like. We have the time to make an informed decision. We shouldn’t just look at the timeline and just default to 2013. I don’t want it to default. I want to engage the community.”

Herrera also said the board needs to look at November 2012.

“I really think we need to do the levy this year,” Herrera said. “We need to try and avoid additional budget cuts. We need to get to work soon on this issue.”

But McCann pointed out that the school board currently has a full plate. Along with budget concerns, the board also has to deal with curriculum issues, financial concerns and the loss of its superintendent. Tom Tapper will retire on June 30.

“My personal choice is that we postpone going out this year with an operating levy, with all of things we have on our plate,” McCann said. “I would like to get as much community input as possible. We have been offered constructive interest from the teachers, the principals and the business community.”

While a final decision has not been made, the board discussed hiring an interim superintendent, who could run the district until the end of the 2012-2013 school year.

“If we decide to go through a full search for a superintendent, I worry about how having an interim in place would effect us at the ballot box,” Bernard said, “as far as not having a clear picture of who is directing the future of the district.”

On April 30, the board spent an hour going over the pros and cons of going to the ballot box in 2012 or 2013. At the end of the meeting, Tapper announced his plan to retire. Jensen said it would have been more helpful to know about his intention to leave before the discussion. Before the meeting, Tapper handed out a recap of the levy discussion to the board members.

“(Dr. Tapper’s retirement) was not announced until after we had this discussion, and I feel that is unfortunate,” Jensen said. “Looking at (the recap) now, I don’t think it applies.”

To increase the levy, the district will have to return to the ballot box. The voters haven’t been too friendly to area schools in recent years. The district has suffered losses at the ballot box in 2007, 2008, 2010 and 2011. In 2010, the voters did approve an extension of the current levy to the 2015-2016 school year.

To take the pulse of the Owatonna community in 2012, the board does plan to conduct a survey. Tapper hopes to have a survey company come in and talk to the board in the next few weeks. The survey will cost between $10,000 and $15,000. Earlier in the meeting, Todd Andrix of the Owatonna Education Association and Brad Meier of Owatonna Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism offered to do internal surveys of teachers and business leaders to see if there is support for a 2012 levy initiative. The board has yet to decide if it will accept the offers.

While board member Vilnis Giga supports a community survey, he has not said whether he wants to go to the ballot box in 2012 or 2013.

Although the district went to the ballot box just six months ago, Anderson, Herrera and Wall have never gone through an election cycle. McCann reminded them and the rest of the board about the intensity of an election.

“I want to make sure that everyone on the board understands that this is a committed process,” McCann said. “It’s a full-court press. We’re going to have to engage the community. I’m not saying we can’t do that, but we need to be aware of the process.”

Derek Sullivan can be reached at 444-2372.