$5.1M opt out going to voters

Board votes 4-1 to put $5.1M annual opt out for 10 years on April ballot

BROOKINGS – Brookings voters will get to decide on April 10 the fate of a $5.1 million annual opt out that would last for 10 years.

The opt out was approved by the Brookings School Board Monday night on a 4-1 vote after considering several different options that would have put the opt out amount at different totals and fund different levels of district priorities.

As Brookings Superintendent Klint Willert put it in describing the district’s situation, the challenge is closing the gap between limited resources and the needs and wants of students, staff and the district. 

To help achieve a balanced budget, he presented four options to the school board’s consideration. None of the options presented included any potential cuts, as the conversation was about revenue only.

Four options

The first option was the most modest, calling for a $758,000 annual opt out that only sought to balance the budget and break even. That number was reached by taking into account eliminating the deficit ($185,000), the loss of the pension fund ($150,000), capital outlay ($300,000) and adding two full-time equivalent (FTE) teachers ($123,000).

This would roughly double the school district’s tax levy on owner-occupied properties from an existing 34 cents per $1,000 in valuation to 68.3 cents per $1,000.

If the district had decided against pursuing an opt out or if the opt out is voted down, that means that there would have to be about an equivalent amount of budget cuts.

Option No. 2 was for a $2 million annual opt out that balanced the budget and included some additional spending on hiring staff and faculty. In keeping with the strategic plan, this calls for spending in district reading and literacy programming by hiring such positions as an eighth-grade reading teacher, a district reading instruction coach, and making sure every school library has certified librarians. This is projected to cost $278,800.

For student and staff support, there would be spending to provide a staff stipend for curriculum/instruction work, technology support, three FTE counselors, a career and technical education director or dean, 2.5 FTE school nurses, a K-5 curriculum director, a human resources director, two FTE instructional coaches and two FTE K-5 deans of students. This would cost a projected $968,000.

This option would have the levy increase from 34 cents per $1,000 in property valuation to 91 cents per $1,000.

Option No. 3, totaling $3,953,118, does all that the first two options did and adds to the list of targeted spending.

Some of the additional things accounted for in this option include more enhancements to district and program development: alternative school, reduced class sizes (to achieve 22 students/core classroom, add an estimated 14 FTE), remedial summer school, library aide, extra duty staffing, staff development online resources and increased per staff allocation, general education behavior room, bus drivers and transportation secretary. These additions (compared to the previous options) total a projected $1,948,318.

The tax levy here would go from 34 cents per $1,000 in valuation to $1.80 per $1,000.

Option 3.1 is a variation of No. 3 that puts a heavier emphasis on reducing class sizes and providing staff development enhancements. That opt out would come to $5,060,118.

The main difference between this and the third option, as pointed out by Willert, is “the 20 students per core classroom, which would add a total of 32 staff members to the district, 32 FTEs. Again, this is an anticipated number, a projected number based on current enrollments.”

This would increase the tax levy from 34 cents per $1,000 in valuation to $2.295 per $1,000.

Approve or vote?

As to the methods for deciding the fate of the opt out, Brookings School Board President Randy Grimsley said there were two choices: bring it directly to the voters, or for the board to approve the option it prefers and then the public has a chance to refer it.

School board member Steve Bayer recalled that he’s spoken many times about the fact that they’re running out of money for staffing needs, with action to do something about it getting pushed back.

“I would support moving forward with one of these options tonight,” he said. “If the answer is no, then we have a very clear direction to go ahead and make those cuts. But the other option if we don’t move forward with an opt out is we’re accepting those cuts by default, and I don’t want to do that.”

As a means of starting things off, Bayer offered up for vote going with the second option, adjusting the total amount so that it’d reflect 2 percent inflation over a 10-year period. This totaled, then, to become a $2.6 million annual opt out that would last 10 years.

Board members began to adjust opt out amounts with inflation rates so that the impact on the effectiveness of the opt out wouldn’t be too badly harmed by yearly inflation.

School board member Van Fishback, noting that he isn’t against an opt out, argued this was asking too much too quickly, and that that could be to the detriment of the opt out’s fate in April. “We need to get it right. We don’t need to rush to get to something and … have it turned down.”

Board member Jennifer Lacher-Starace preferred the third option, however, since it was the one that first addressed class sizes. Citing her educational experience, this was an important deciding factor for her.

“I’ve been a teacher for 22 years. There’s little that is more significant a factor on student learning than class sizes. I wish that wasn’t necessarily the case, but I can provide a better service to my students if I have fewer of them,” she said. “I can provide more individualized instruction and attention to them, and I can provide more feedback.”

She suggested the board go with Option No. 3, adjusted with a 2.5 percent inflation rate in mind, resulting in an opt out of $5.1 million per year during a 10-year period.

The argument for considering class sizes spoke to board member Mellissa Heermann, too, who also lent her support to that option, even as the opt out’s large sum gave her some pause.

Principal support

A pair of school principals came forward at the end to urge action on moving forward with an opt out.

Brookings High School Principal Paul von Fischer spoke first.

“To not act at this point, from a district and community perspective, is having us fall further behind and risk losing the edge I feel we still have,” he said. “But I wonder how long we’ll have that if we do not make a stand and make a decision.”

Mickelson Middle School Principal Tim Steffensen agreed. “This is a pretty scary move on your behalf, I know, but it is a direction that I would echo Dr. von Fischer, that it is a direction that we need to move because we’re just hanging on right now.”

The vote to put the $5.1 million annual opt out on the April 10 ballot was approved by the board 4-1, with Fishback voting against.

Contact Eric Sandbulte at [email protected]

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