District 197 school board ties success of stadium to technology, security votes

Some stadium supporters feel "betrayed" by decision

Because the District 197 referendum failed in May's special election, school leaders hope enthusiam for a new stadium at Henry Sibley High School in Mendota Heights will help pass the vote this fall. But the school board's recent decision to make stadium funding contingent on voters approving funding for technology and security projects on the Nov. 4 ballot has key stadium supporters reconsidering their roles. 

A group of stadium proponents met the night of the Aug. 18 board meeting to start planning their "vote yes" campaign. Hearing about the referendum's outcome "derailed" that conversation, according to Dave Schilling, a district parent and member of a committee that developed the stadium proposal.  

What's in the referendum

The West St. Paul-Mendota Heights-Eagan Area Schools board approved a referendum with three questions, where voters will vote "yes" or "no" to the trio of funding requests.

First: a request to renew and increase the technology levy, also called the capital project levy. According to the district:

  • the existing levy for $490,000 per year will expire this year
  • the ballot request will provide $1.2 million per year, an increase of  $710,000 annually
  • it would last for 10 years, for an overall cost of $12 million
  • it would maintain current equipment and technological infrastructure, such as Wi-Fi internet access 
  • it would also be used to expand the program of providing iPads to students, promoting "tech equity" between schools and district cities
  • its annual funding would be $500,000 less than the May request

Second, the district's asking to issue general obligation building bonds. It says:

  • the $3.275 million would improve security at entrances and enhance security throughout district schools by expanding lock-down capabilities
  • the amount would not include the $7.5 million that was listed on the May ballot to build an early-learning center; the district is instead exploring leasing space

Third, the district is asking for building bonds for a new stadium:

  • the $4.585 million would build a new stadium at the high school in Mendota Heights
  • the new stadium would replace Charles Matson Field in West St. Paul

Instead of having each issue stand on its own on the ballot, the school board decided to make the third question — the stadium funding — contingent on the passing of the first two questions. 

That means that even if the stadium receives overwhelming support at the ballot box, it won't succeed unless the majority of voters says "yes" to the technology and security questions. 

Why contingent?

During public comments before the school board voted, Joe Lawder, a father of a student, described a sentiment that some school board members expect to be prevalent in the community: that the school board should focus on what's needed, rather than what's wanted, before coming back to the voters to approve financing, especially so soon.

Saying the move might help differentiate between "want" and "need," board chair Mark Spurr proposed an amendment to make the stadium contingent on the approval of both the technology and security questions, in order to show the community the board's priorities.

"I want to make darn sure the needs pass," he said. 

Board member Matthew Klein said the board could risk losing the stadium supporter's "passion," if it passed the amendment.

Although most board members initially said they wanted the questions to be presented separately, the amendment passed 5-2. Board members John Chandler and Stephanie Levine cast the dissenting votes.

In a statement on the district's website Thursday, Spurr added, "We believe that the stadium will be a tremendous boost for our athletic program and our community. We want voters to know that we have a vision for our schools that includes high-quality athletic facilities, but that we have technology and security needs that must be met first."

Initial reactions

Stadium proponents, who asked the school board to consider the stadium in January after the idea was discussed by a task force in the fall of 2013, were taken by surprise by the move. There was some talk among the dozen or so at the meeting that they might not take the lead in a campaign to support the referendum.

Nicole Paradise hosted the supporter gathering, and was "stunned" by the board's decision.

She said all three questions involve worthwhile endeavors, but thought the district should have given stadium supporters who were called on to drive the campaign a little more warning.

"The goals, passion and energy of our group is the stadium," Paradise said in an emailed response to Review questions. "My hope is that the community rallies around the needs of the district and our kids to support and invest in the future of this community. 

"Unfortunately, after last night's decision, I am left feeling disappointed and bit betrayed."

Schilling said he heard a lot of the same reaction.

"It's unfortunate that people were offended and hurt by what happen," Schilling said. "We still support the school board. We still support the community. We still want our community to move forward in investing in education."

Next steps

With the ballot language approved, the questions will be submmitted to the Dakota County Auditor and the Minnesota Department of Education will be notified, as requirements dictate.

At this point, no changes can be made to the ballot language, according to district staff.

The district will make available information about the referendum on its website, send out at least one mailing and hold informational meetings. 

The district's website is www.isd197.org.

Kaitlyn Roby can be reached at 651-748-7815 and kroby@lillienews.com. Follow her at twitter.com/KRobyNews.


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