Rochester schools double down after losing tech referendum

Within days of residents rejecting Rochester schools’ $10 million technology levy referendum last month, Superintendent Kent Pekel effectively dismissed the voters’ verdict and put the measure back on the table. There was no pause for reflection or discussion of the public’s larger meaning in the surprising outcome that Pekel said should be “a turning point for education in our community.”

In fact, there’s a chance the district may up the ante and increase the total request they plan to put before residents again next year, according to the Post Bulletin.

“My main message is this,” Pekel wrote in the statement, “if Rochester wants to provide all its young people with the caliber of education that will enable them to succeed in the economy and in society in which they will live their lives, additional funding for our school district is urgent and essential.”

Pekel’s statement said the district will undertake further research before determining how much it will ask the community to approve in the referendum next year.

At the same time, Pekel announced plans to take advantage of a new tool passed by the DFL-controlled legislature to enable districts to bypass voters in renewing operating levies.

Pekel also indicated his intent to ask the school board to renew the district’s existing operating levy. In recent conversations, the superintendent and the school board never discussed at length what they would do with the existing operating levy. Instead, Pekel said he prefer to wait to see what happened with voters’ reaction to the proposed tech levy.

The Minnesota Legislature this year gave school districts the authority to renew an existing operating levy one time without having to ask voters. If RPS doesn’t renew the existing levy, it would lose $17 million a year in revenue, further compounding the financial cuts that it has made over the past two years.

“I am confident that the defeat of the referendum last week was not the end of a conversation with our community about its support for education,” Pekel wrote. “It was the beginning.”

Yet blaming or shaming voters is a stretch. As recently as 2019, Rochester voters approved a $180 million referendum to build a new elementary and middle school. But in the meantime, enrollment has declined dramatically by more than 700 students, who’ve opted for Catholic schools, nearby districts and homeschooling since the pandemic.

Now just two years after opening new schools, the district has announced plans to close three schools to close a looming budget deficit next year. The district’s painstaking explanation for the retrenchment may not instill the confidence some voters expect in what comes next, including another referendum.

While the 3.9% decline in enrollment that RPS experienced is small compared to the declines that have occurred in many school districts across the country, it nonetheless means that Rochester Public Schools now serves 715 fewer students than the district served before the pandemic. In other words, enrollment in RPS has declined by the number of students who could fill a large elementary school or middle school. There is reason to believe that enrollment in RPS will increase as the investment that Mayo Clinic and the State of Minnesota are making in Rochester increases employment in our community, but demographers are not yet finding that more families with young children are moving into our community. 

More than declining enrollment drives the deficit. The district also faces the loss of federal pandemic funding, higher salaries and benefits and transportation costs for busing.