Amid building boom, District 623 braces for operating budget cuts


As the Roseville Area School District carries out district-wide facilities improvements backed by a $144 million bond referendum, including an expansion of Roseville Area High School, it’s bracing for a third year of operating budget cuts. (Mike Munzenrider)

The near $70 million worth of construction and upgrades currently underway at Roseville Area High School are apparent to anyone who drives by on Highway 36.

Currently purple and awaiting siding, a new science wing took shape at the school over winter and construction vehicles continue to swarm just off the highway, bounded by Lexington Avenue to the east.

The work is being carried out with the backing of Roseville Area School District voters, who in 2017 overwhelmingly approved a $144 million bond referendum dedicated to upgrading all of the district’s dozen or so buildings.

What might be less apparent to commuters is that for the third year in a row, the district is facing operating budget cuts. 

For the 2019-2020 school year budget, it will be cutting some $800,000, according to Roseville Area School Board Chair Kitty Gogins.

“We’ve cut so much that we can’t keep the cuts out of the classroom,” she said, explaining they will be most noticeable as an increase in class sizes district-wide and in all grades, by 0.5 students.

“We are struggling with operating funds, as are all districts,” Gogins said.

The main culprit for the cuts, she said, is that state funding hasn’t kept up with inflation. The state provides 74% of the district’s funding, yet since 2003 the Legislature has failed to keep up with rising costs.

As explained in a district newsletter article on the 2019-2020 budget, state funding is 9.8% behind inflation. Stated another way in the same article, if the state had stayed pegged to inflation the district would be receiving $4.5 million more from Minnesota this year.

“Having to deal with the budget cuts is the most difficult thing I have to deal with on the school board,” said Gogins, who was elected to a fourth term on the body in 2017. “It’s challenging when you have to do this year after year. It’s into the muscle; it’s even into the bone.”

 

Voter confusion?

Despite the district’s best efforts to get the word out about the impending cuts via its newsletter, district parent Mike Perniel received the news in an April 18 email from the high school music department.

A Roseville resident, he has two kids in district schools, a senior at RAHS and an eight-grader.

Per the email, it was sent to clarify rumors that had been circulating.

“We would like to inform you of staffing changes in the music department for the 2019-2020 school year,” the email said. “Due to the district-wide budget cuts of $800,000, the district made several staffing cuts which have directly impacted the music department.”

The email explained the department would be going from six full-time music directors to 4.5; teacher time would be redistributed between the high school and middle school, one instructor was retiring, and another person’s position was being eliminated. 

Despite the direct line drawn in the letter, Gogins pointed out that some of the reasoning for the music staffing changes could be attributed to planned right-sizing of the music department. 

“Some of that could be outside the impact of the $800,000,” she said.

Still, Perniel was shocked by the news.

“My initial reaction was ‘What?’ I was quite angry,” he said in an email. “We just voted to give the school district $144 million! How can there be layoffs of teachers and cuts to programs?”

Perniel said he got on the phone with district officials — Gogins, as well as Superintendent Dr. Aldo Sicoli — who explained the issues with state funding and how the building bond cash can only be used for facilities-specific purposes.

 

Known unknowns

The last time the district requested a building bond was in 1992, and a quarter century later it argued more facilities funding was badly needed to improve outdated and inadequate buildings. Voters agreed — the 2017 bond referendum passed with 74% of the vote.

With operating budget cuts already made and more on the horizon, Perniel said the district should have asked for an increase in operating funds along with the building bond request. 

“Now they have to decide if they go back to voters and request an increase in the operational levy,” he said. “The voters will likely be confused, like me, and say, ‘I just voted to give you the money you asked for.’ It’s an unfortunate situation.”

According to Gogins, the district’s current operating budget levy, which is supported by district resident property taxes, expires at the end of June 2022. 

The latest the district could put a new operating levy to a vote is in November 2021. Per the district newsletter, property tax support makes up 19 percent of district funding.

Gogins said the planned 2019-2020 budget, with its cuts, is written with an assumption of a 2% increase in state funding. 

The DFL-controlled House on April 23 passed an education budget that includes a 3% increase in per-pupil funding in its first year, with a 2% increase the next. The Republican-controlled Senate is likely to put forth a budget with smaller increases, Gogins said, below the 2% increase anticipated in the district budget. Leaders in the two chambers will come together to negotiate out the different numbers for the final state budget.

“The biggest challenge for us is that state revenue doesn’t keep up with inflation and that is the root cause of the challenges we are facing,” Gogins said.

“We work very hard to make the best decisions with the funding we have available.”

The 2019-2020 Roseville Area School District budget will be finalized in June. A public hearing on the budget is Tuesday, May 28, at 6 p.m. at the district center, 1251 County Road B2 W. in Roseville.

 

–Mike Munzenrider can be reached at mmunzenrider@lillienews.com or 651-748-7813. 

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