Vote Yes works to increase operating levy, renovate schools

On Nov. 7, Northfield residents will have the opportunity to vote in a referendum on two issues pertaining to the Northfield public school system. First, increasing the operating levy. At the most basic level, the operating levy is the amount of money spent on operating costs in the Northfield public school system. The referendum proposes that the levy be increased by $470.15 per student per year for the next ten years. The second item on the ballot – which is contingent on the passage of the first – would introduce the implementation of the Master Facilities Plan, a $109 million project that would provide necessary capital upgrades throughout the district.

In an effort to sway voters to pass the referendum, Pasha Quaas and Amy McBroom are co-chairing the Vote Yes campaign. Quaas highlighted the long process of preparing the Master Facilities Plan to present to the public.

“The school district started [the process] about three years ago with an effort that they have called the Master Facilities Plan,” Quaas said. “And so they really took a deep look at all the district facilities and … figured out, what’s our short term goal, our medium term goal and what’s our long term goal? Are we meeting the needs … and what are the needs of the district that are outstanding?” 

Based on this analysis of the school district, it was decided that $30.5 million of this bond would go towards a new elementary school, the renovation of the old elementary school into a center for early childhood programming, the creation of a new media center and a new, secure main office entrance, all of which would be completed for the 2019 school year. $78.5 million of this bond would be used to build a new high school, to be completed by 2020.

“We are desperate for space in our early childhood area. That’s really the only place in the district that we have a sort of building wide space constraint,” Quaas said.

One of the current elementary school buildings, Greenvale Park, has breezeways and is not practical for Minnesota winters.

“The district has done what they can with creating temporary walls, and trying to put things up above the walls, but it’s still hard to learn and to teach in a building where there’s so much noise,” Quaas said.

Northfield High School is also deemed an unsuitable learning environment for students. Over the years it has undergone four major additions, but with little regard for design or functionality.

“[The new high school] is creating the most questions around town, because of the dollar amount,” Quaas said. “But our current high school is just not meeting the needs of students. There are very limited flexible learning spaces … our labs are incredibly outdated … it’s really difficult to keep temperate, so students start bringing their winter coats to school in September.”

While the bond is going towards long term projects, the operating levy, which is set to expire in 2022, is essential to the daily operations of the district. Minnesota’s Legislature has failed to keep up with inflation rates in funding public schools. An increase in the levy would allow the district to attract better teachers and provide more services to students.

There has been some concern over the financial impact this referendum would have on Northfield residents because the levy and bond would be funded through an increase in property taxes, which for the average property owner in Northfield would lead to a yearly propery tax increase of $532. 

“We have an opportunity right now, with interest rates at historic lows and construction costs going up 5 to 7 percent a year, and that means that if we wait even one year the total for these bond projects goes up $8 million.”

Considering that this is one of the biggest bond or levy proposals made in Northfield, the Vote Yes campaign has been working hard to ensure its passing by doing presentations at community organizations and retirement homes.

“I think there’s a perception in Northfield that we value education so much in this community that of course it will pass … but in reviewing past levy or bond referendums, they’ve always been close … they’ve been 52 to 48 percent … so there are thousands of people who vote no,” Quaas said.

Laura Schlotterback ’17, a volunteer for Citizens for Quality Education, highlighted the importance of this referendum passing for St. Olaf students.

“We’re here on the Hill to learn and grow, and education is so important for that. It’s really important to engage with the referendum as an important issue,” Schlotterback said. “Part of the reason [St. Olaf] can attract good professors is because of the good schools, and there are professors with young families who want to live here.”

Same day registration is available in Minnesota if students are interested in participating in this election, and students can vote in Buntrock Commons on Nov. 7.