Chisago Lakes School District in ‘dire’ financial situation, officials say

Chisago Lakes School District in ‘dire’ financial situation, officials say

Chisago Lakes School District in 'dire' financial situation, officials say

Chisago Lakes School District officials on Monday said that the district’s need for increased funding is “dire” after a $23 million bond referendum and a $355 per-pupil increase in school operating levies failed on Election Day.

The School Board has already made $4 million worth of budget cuts in the last five years to keep up with operational costs, according to Board Vice Chair Jeff Lindeman, who added he’s not sure how to make up the difference without a change at the state level.

“We have cut teachers, we have cut staff, we have cut our programs,” Lindeman listed.

“There’s some definite needs for safety and security to be addressed,” Superintendent Brian Dietz shared.

Chisago Lakes Middle School was his top priority for security upgrades, including the entryway where the school lacks the growing standard of having a centralized office where visitors have to check in upon arrival.

“You basically are buzzed in and you’re on campus at that point. And that’s not safe in today’s world at this point,” Dietz continued.

Perhaps even more striking are the third-floor classrooms. Many of them don’t have doors.

“So there’s a little bit of privacy for people walking by,” Lindeman said, sliding a curtain closed at the entrance of one of the rooms. “But the biggest thing is there’s not a locked secured door.”

Dietz listed other big-ticket repairs they say the district needs, including roofs “that are basically end of life, parking lots [and] other concrete work.”

He and Lindeman said that after two years of failed bond referendums and levy increases, the district is left without the means to fix any of it, much less retain its teachers who could make “10 to $30,000 more” in neighboring districts, according to Lindeman.

“The way we fund schools is archaic, and things need to change,” he said.

Minnesota school districts are largely funded on a per-pupil basis, currently at a rate of $6,863 per student. In other words, the more students a district has, the more money it gets from the state.

However, the rate has not kept up with inflation and has not been considered enough money for districts to operate off of for some time.

That’s where operating levies come in. Voters in many districts have agreed to tax hikes of varying degrees and frequency to raise that per-pupil rate, which places some districts of the same size on different playing fields.

Chisago Lakes School District has been a few million dollars a year behind its neighboring districts for several years, Lindeman said.

Even with upcoming annual inflationary increases approved by the Minnesota Legislature this year, he and Dietz said it’s not enough to entirely bring back what they’ve cut, much less make repairs and secure schools.

“Our legislators need to come and visit our schools, and talk to the School Board members so we can change the way that we fund schools. That has to change,” Lindeman concluded.

Meanwhile, it’s back to the drawing board for district officials as they prepare to ask voters again for a referendum and/or levy increase on the next Election Day.