Editorial: Board will have to make strong case for levy

On Tuesday, the Rochester School Board officially decided to follow a course of action that we knew was inevitable. In November, voters will be asked to support a property tax increase to raise more money for our schools.

Superintendent Romain Dallemand was eloquent as he made the first speech in what promises to be an interesting campaign to win voters' approval for the tax increase.

"Investment in our young ones is a noble cause, and we owe it to our young ones to support their development as global citizens," he said. "Investing in education is not only good for our kids, it is good for our future work force. It is good for Rochester."

Based strictly on the numbers, the case for increased revenue is easy to make. Statewide, the average school district spends $795 per student in local dollars. Among the state's 14 largest districts, local spending exceeds $1,100 — yet Rochester, the seventh-largest district in Minnesota, spends just $442.87 in local dollars on each student.

For a city with our economic resources, that's somewhat embarrassing.


But if you've been following the news during the past three years, you know that those numbers don't tell the whole story. The road to a passage of this new levy will be steep and littered with the following obstacles:

• Economic uncertainty that could make voters wary of ANY tax increases — especially for those who have no children in the public school system.

• The likelihood of high voter turnout in a midterm election year. Since 2002, just 46 percent of school levy proposals statewide have passed in even-year elections. In odd-numbered years, when turnout in November is substantially lower, there has been a 65 percent approval rate.

• Backlash against the school board and upper-level administrators. Dallemand, his cabinet and the board have received a great deal of criticism in the past three years — some of it justified. Some voters doubtless will see this referendum as a chance to express their displeasure with the Five-Year Plan, Efficacy Training and certain hiring decisions.

To clear these hurdles, district officials will need a plan. A very, very good plan. The first step will be checking the pulse of Rochester to find out how much more money — if any — its residents are willing to invest in our schools, and how that money should be spent.

That "pulse-checking" process led to one of the more interesting discussions at Tuesday's school board meeting. Dallemand asked the board to contract with Springsted Incorporated, a St. Paul-based consulting firm that would conduct a survey of Rochester residents at a cost of $20,000.

We have no objection to such a survey. Nor do we balk at its price tag. Twice in the past decade, the district has contracted with another research firm for similar surveys, at an average cost of $21,000. Given the obstacles listed above, this is no time to be guessing. Election night would be a bad time to find out that the public strongly opposes spending an extra $300 per student.

But we were pleased that the board didn't simply rubber-stamp Dallemand's recommendation of Springsted Incorporated to conduct the survey. Board members Cris Fischer and Breanna Bly were outspoken in their belief that the board needs more time and more options — including some competitive bids from other research firms.


The board voted to reconsider this matter in two weeks, which was a wise move. After all, a school district that just cut 44 full-time teaching positions shouldn't spend $20,000 on consultants without shopping around a bit.

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