School board keeps referendum door open

MARSHALL – In the next 30 days, some pretty big decisions will be made in the district regarding interest and intent to proceed with a voter-approved referendum this fall, Superintendent Klint Willert said at the Marshall School board meeting Monday night.

A resolution regarding intent was previously passed by the board, making the process a possibility.

“We did that partly because there was legislation that was being advanced that talked about the possibly of not even having an option on the table,” Willert said. “So by passing that, as a board, you do have that in front of you as an option and as a consideration.”

The last day to adopt a resolution calling for a referendum election and to notify county auditors and the Minnesota Department of Education Commissioner is August 27.

“If we’re moving forward with a vote this fall, there are a couple of key pieces that we need to determine,” Willert said. “One, what is the scope and content of the referendum question? We’ve talked before at this table and we know a couple of years ago we actually had a vote about technology and moving technology forward in the district. It failed by a very narrow margin, so that one was asked before. It’s certainly an on-going consideration and need.”

In addition, Willert said, after what happened in Newport, Conn., there have been several conversations about enhancing the safety and security of several of the entrances of buildings, particularily our elementary buildings.

“I know our public is very sensitive to that,” he said. “I’ve received e-mails from various parents, asking us what we are doing to enhance safety. We also have some deferred and on-going maintenance needs.”

Along with MPS Business Director Bruce Lamprecht, Willert is hoping that representatives from Ehlers, the district’s financial adviser, can shed more light on a very complex situation. Representatives are planning to attend the Aug. 5 work session meeting at Marshall Middle School.

“We can get their expertise and advice related to what we can do with the referendum,” Willert said. “There are a couple of key nuances that we have to consider and understand how they all fit together.”

One of those nuances is a $300 discretionary levy that the board has been granted authority to approve, Willert said.

“That’s not $300 of new money unless you’re a district that currently does not have a referendum in place,” he said. “By action of the school board, they can enact a $300 per pupil operating referendum in their district.”

MPS has a different option available.

“You, by acting as a board, can replace a portion of our $675 referendum with that $300,” Willert said. “That doesn’t change the impact on the local property taxpayer.”

Willert pointed out the second nuance, because MPS is a district of more than 2,000 students, is location equity index.

“It’s a bit of a controversial piece because of the impact that it has on the suburban/metro area versus greater Minnesota,” he said. “We’re still trying to pu our heads completely around how that piece works within our current $675 referendum or how either one of those elements work moving forward with a new operating referendum.”

Willert said the district would not be able to say that it would be going for a $300 referendum this fall and that the amount is going to be approved by the board.

“The $300 replaces the first $300 of what you already, as a board, have existing,” Willert said. “And even though our voters have approved or authorized up to $675, that doesn’t, by default, make it $975.”

Although deadlines are rapidly approaching, Willert hopes that there will be a noticeable clean-up of language coming from the Legislature. The issue was put in at the “11th hour of the legislative session without any vetting or any real dialog or discussion,” he said.

“We’ve had several corrections come from the Department of Education, where advice was rendered, retracted and rendered again because they’re trying to sort through what this actually means,” he said. “I know when we had our legislative follow-up with Dr. Tom Melcher, who is the finance guru for the state of Minnesota, he actually shared that they were still in conversation with the governor’s office, and House and Senate leadership on the actual interpretation of what was enacted.”

Melcher’s conversation, Willert said, had occurred a few weeks after the session had concluded, so it’s not surprising that people are unsure of all of the implications yet. Those implications tend to vary considerably for each district as well, he said.