Thursday, August 7, 2014

It's Not School Money Madness

For those expecting an IT/tech post out of me, sorry. Today I'm here to discuss local school referendum issues. We'll resume regular programming later.

Through the social networks I've been reading various arguments against our local school district's campaign for a referendum. It's usually an impassioned discussion because, despite our area's relatively small population we support 2 private schools as well as a sizable public school.

My kids go to the public school so obviously that is my bias. I support students from the other schools as well and want them to have the best opportunities they can get too. However, some of the arguments against the referendum are starting to miss the point or are beginning to sound a little us-against-them. It's a touchy subject because taxes are involved, which affects everyone to some extent.

I read through a thoughtfully prepared blog post More School Money Madnes by Matthias Layrer, a fellow from Mankato I haven't had the pleasure of meeting. Please go ahead and read it since that is what the remainder of my post is based on.

He has obviously has put a lot of thought into the matter and is not opposed to looking bigger picture. I like that. However, I don't agree with him on many points so I'm going to go through and talk about some things that I've learned both as a parent involved with the public school and as a community member who's had conversations with people involved in these matters.

Location

I'll admit, I'm also disappointed no precise location for the new facility has been identified by the school board. It'd be nice to know what we're buying. The reality is that New Ulm's geography, coupled with the location of the airport, makes this a hard thing to nail down. Given the high price of farmland you can't just say "we're going to buy Farmer Smith's land for a new school". Speculation like that is irresponsible. They just can't enter negotiations or planning without voter approval first.

I also take issue with the idea that walkability and car-reduced living is reduced or impacted by building a high school outside of the center of town. Matthias does the right thing by getting MNDOT traffic maps and car counts. That doesn't tell the whole story, though, and at worst actually gives a false impression. Traffic in the public school area is actually far worse than the numbers indicate. When school starts up in the fall I'd love to take Matthias along with me as I drop off my kids at school and explain what's happening.

1) New Ulm is a workaday, hourly wage town. We live and die by the 8am-5pm work day. Nearly all employers expect employees promptly BEFORE 8am. With many parents needing to drop their kids off and get to work before 8:00 this means a lot of people rushing, usually at the expense of other peoples' safety, to get through the gauntlet.

2) I agree that two-lane road capacity is 10,000 cars by recommendation. Neither Garden nor Payne Streets qualify as a thoroughfare however. A residential street with 2000 cars daily is a very busy road. Also, don't forget that Payne street, with its traffic controls, probably sees wildly different traffic counts at different areas. It might even be busier near St. Paul's Elementary as public school parents drive by to get closer to drop off their kids before turning off well before 4th St to avoid the traffic controls and crossing guards. I'd like to see traffic decreased by St. Paul's as well.

3) Congestion is a real problem. The line of cars backed up on Garden St southbound can be as long as 3-5 blocks. It's a real problem for residents along that area. Vogel fieldhouse is also negatively impacted; The morning workout folks have to travel the long way around sometimes to avoid getting caught up in the wait. With poor line of sight, cars parked along the street, many vehicles, and lots people in a hurry to beat the clock to work it can be a pretty rotten situation.

4) Many of the 10-12 grade students drive to school. Even ones only a few blocks away. You may as well ignore them as part of the location argument. They don't care if the school is in on Payne Street or half way to Hanska. They wouldn't be caught dead biking to school.

Would any of those parents bike their kids to work? No. They're not driving to jobs downtown (where there aren't all that many jobs anyway). They're driving to Kraft, 3M, Windings, Medallion, SpecSys, Shelter Products. True, some major employers are near downtown, but that's still 10 blocks away - another 7-10 minutes of biking if you have no waits at any intersections. For my own trip to work it's another 18 blocks from the school. That's 8 minutes if I bike at a fast pace, don't have to wait at intersections, and arrive to work sweaty. To allow for a time cushion, I would need to bank on 15 minutes. That's almost earlier than the school wants kids arriving. If I worked at 3M that's another 9 blocks and I would have to bank on another 10 minutes. We're nearly up to 30 minutes and that is definitely earlier than the school wants kids to arrive.

My point is that the location of the school isn't as great as it seems. For most hourly wage parents they need to drive anyway to arrive at work early enough. This isn't a generational issue. I don't care how much a Millenial wants to bike, if you are required to be at your work by 8am, the current location of the school means you're going to be driving. Love it or hate it, that's the reality in New Ulm.

Sports

Matthias has good points here. Johnson is a great facility and it's fun to watch game there and it would be great to see it get continued use.

I know that the public school uses Vogel Fieldhouse for some things but there's cost involved there too. The school needs to pay to use those facilities (rather than paying for maintenance on owned facilities. I know, I know). But frankly, if the school increases their use of those facilities that decreases the opportunities for residents to use what is arguably a very nice and affordable recreational facility. If more people want to take advantage of Vogel, increased use by the school may create a capacity problem. I don't have numbers on it but the number of cars in the parking lot indicate increased use to me. I've been driving past every school-day morning for 2 years now and that's my unscientific observation.

Population

Now this part starts to get me riled up because the population numbers really do not tell the whole story. When the high school was built, it was intended to house 800 students (by 1960's standards) and held 607, grades 10-12. Today it houses 1030. While it is true that the city's population has been plateaued at about 13,000-13,500 residents, the people that make up that population changes over time. Our current trend is for more families moving into town. If the population isn't increasing that's because the new arrivals are replacing deaths and households without children. Class sizes have been increasing recently.

It's a mistake to look at stagnant population numbers and assume that the age spread is also stagnant. I've been watching many families move into town as jobs held by long-time employees open up due to retirement. People in their 30's and 40's are looking for better opportunities for their children and, despite the pay cut of moving out of the metro, the New Ulm area has a lot to offer. There's a brain gain happening under the radar.

http://www.startribune.com/local/158326255.html
http://www.extension.umn.edu/community/brain-gain/

Community

Another sore spot with me. This isn't about just community space. The fact of the matter is that the private schools, home-schooled, and families in other districts rely on ISD 88 to provide a lot of special needs services. This is only fair: everyone pays taxes so those services need to be there for all comers. I'm really proud of what our public school has done. There are families that send their kids to New Ulm simply because it has some of the best services around for special needs students.

If we are going to continue to be amazing in this area and provide these services to everyone we need to seriously consider the ramifications of turning down a referendum. Special needs services take a lot of room. That's space that cannot be used for mainstream programs. This isn't about being creative with the space we have. The district is already doing that as best it can.

I would contend that the New Ulm population isn't aging. I suggest that the population is actually getting younger. There is already great space for community ed in existing buildings and this referendum is not about that.

Culture

I agree that New Ulm has a great culture. We're also frugal (often to a fault) and probably too often value-conscious.

During the 2013-2014 Network New Ulm leadership program I had the opportunity to visit the local schools along with their administrators. For the long-time residents in the group who were alumni it was very obvious that the public school facilities are beyond their capacity. I highly encourage Matthias and anyone else who isn't familiar with the public school to reach out to the district. Take a walk through the hallways...you'll be amazed (as I was) at the state of the building and how over capacity they are. It's not just a group of people wanting something shiny and new. The problem is capacity, facilities, and limitations of the current location.

Taxes

This referendum is not the pet project of spendthrifts who just want a shiny new toy. It's unfortunate Minnesota's tax law (another gripe that we can discuss another time) means that there's a sizable impact on agricultural land. Matthias mentions a friend's farm paying an additional $2,000 a year in taxes or $25,000  over the life of the referendum. The problem is that farmland owners are the most vocal about the burden. As an ag land owner myself I can sympathize but the real burden falls on commercial property.

If we use Menards and Walmart as our examples, the referendum tax calculator estimates their respective yearly bills will increase by about $14,000 each. That's $350,000 over 25 years. If we assume the same value of homestead agricultural land (about 988 acres valued at $9,000/ac) the increase is less then half the increase that commercial land ($6,261 a year). Another industrial mainstay in the community, AMPI, will see a $125,000 increase over 25 years for example.

The increases fall on all of us.

Conclusion

I would caution those who are so quick to dismiss the referendum as unnecessary or extravagant. The idea that the district just needs to learn to live within its means and make do with what it has is just too dismissive of the realities. With increasing needs, limited building and real estate space, and aging facilities there's not a lot of options. A big problem with adding facilities on the current site is that a number of problems are not alleviated; namely traffic, congestion, and space. The current site also has other limitations such as city storm sewers that inhibit expansion.

I appreciate Matthias taking the time to do some research but his blog post doesn't address any of the actual issues the district has beside traffic. His points are mostly about location and money. I want to hear his actual solutions to all the other issues in front of the public school's officials. Voting a referendum down just because of location and money is dismissive at best, irresponsible at worst.

We might be able to consider merely renovating but my questions to those who oppose the referendum - How many students do you expect to be in a classroom? How do you propose to find space for state-mandated special needs programs (that all schools in the area use)? How do you propose to find performing arts space? How do you intend to help the district find the academic space it needs for increasing class sizes?

The referendum offers solutions to all these problems in a fiscally responsible way. By state law any building project must be bonded. If voters keep rejecting referendums today's problems will only compound and educational opportunities will continue to be adversely impacted.

Please vote YES August 12th.