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Chisago Lakes Schools

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July 6, 2022

6/6/2022 4:34:00 PM
Chisago Lakes district officially going for a levy and bond in fall of 2022

After years of planning, handwringing, a vote reversal last year, and community surveying, the Chisago Lakes School Board decided to go out for not just an operating levy in November of 2022 at their regular school board meeting on Thursday, May 26, but also a public bond.

Although the decision to go out for a public vote was a near certainty, the amount to ask the public for and how many questions to break it into was at the forefront of the discussion.

The board eventually settled on two separate questions to ask the public. The first question would be to replace the existing operational levy that funds the district $225 per pupil with a new 10 year levy that would fund the district $1,150 per pupil. The increase would be $925 per pupil, or a total of $3.4 million per year and would put Chisago Lakes on the upper end of funding among local districts.

Currently, Chisago Lakes’ $225 levy is the lowest among Stillwater, White Bear Lake, Forest Lake, Rush City, Centennial and Braham, and starting next year lower than Cambridge-Isanti.

Although White Bear Lake and Stillwater are considerably larger districts, they each have over $1,250 per pupil funded, Forest Lake has $987 per pupil, Rush City is at $900, Centennial is at $819, Braham is at $460, and Cambridge-Isanti’s is currently zero, but the voters in that district approved a levy last year that will fund them $686 per pupil effective in 2022-23.

The second question would be to authorize bonds of up to $19 million for building improvements, including security, safety and long-term maintenance in the schools.

The motion was eventually made by board member Lori Berg and seconded by Brenda Carlson to ask the two questions, and the rest of the board, sans an absent Dani Strenke, agreed unanimously.

Much of the board’s discussion centered on if they should ask three questions, including two separate levy amounts. However, they felt they needed the full amount, and asking for it in two separate questions would leave them shorthanded still if only one were to pass.

“There’s no fluff in what we are going to do with those funds,” Carlson said.

“This list actually started out much larger and more broad, but we’ve pared it down to the essential things,” board member Jeff Lindeman said.

The board outlined what they would like to do with the potential funds. It was broken down into different categories.

Maintaining class sizes
This investment would be in hiring more teachers and increasing the amount of paraprofessionals in classrooms. In their community survey, many respondents were happy with the class sizes, but did not want to seem them increased.

Student supports
There have been multiple calls for increased mental health support in the schools, including school board student representative John Douglas in his parting report to the board. This section would invest in mental health specialists, school counselors, programs to stay connected with at-risk students and truancy support.

Hands-on learning
Some vocational teachers and programs were cut in the last round of budget cuts, and this would help invigorate  some of those programs, including an elementary science specialist, work based learning coordinators, career and technical education classes and technology. The technology aspect would include student and staff devices, updating classroom technology and creating a hybrid Bring Your Own Device program.

Attract and retain high quality teachers and staff
Chisago Lakes is on the lower end of teacher salaries in the area, according to board chairman Mark Leigh, and he said it’s made negotiations with the teachers union very difficult at times.

Part of the levy would help salaries and benefits that allow Chisago Lakes to compete in the labor market, resources dedicated to making sure Chisago Lakes can keep current employees and ongoing mentoring and professional development for all employees.

Bond for facilities
As for the second bond question, those funds would strictly be used for investing and maintaining brick and mortar buildings.

Included in those proposed improvements would be creating a secure entrance and third floor at the Chisago Lakes Middle School, classroom additions at the primary school, remodeling of the Taylors Falls Elementary restrooms, bus garage updates to drainage and concrete slab and multiple roof replacements around the district.

Jennissen said that for a $19 million bond to pass, the average $250,000 house within the district would see a $5 per month increase in their taxes.

The board did labor over the fact that inflation is high all over the nation and costs have risen in nearly everything for constituents, and that may affect how some people vote, but they said all of those things apply to the district costs as well, and they are doing what they think is right for the students within the district. Leigh explained, “In our mind, sometimes we want to be more cautious but we’ve identified $3.4 million of need that we would spend this money on.”

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