Watchdog flags surveys behind proposed $91.5 million school referendum

It may be time for summer vacation, but school’s never out for parents and taxpayers keeping an eye on the test scores, quality of curriculum, and ever-increasing cost for too many of Minnesota’s public schools. That includes Westonka Public Schools in the west metro, where local watchdog Minnestrista Governance blog has raised questions over a proposed $91.5 million referendum in advance of a June 5 school board meeting.

The bond would ultimately cost school district taxpayers $170M according to the school’s financial analysis, more than doubling the district’s current debt load.

According to the MN Department of Education Score Card, Westonka schools have shown a continuous decline, since 2019, in the number of students meeting standards in math. Westonka’s students are also performing worse today than they were in 2018 in all three core areas of math, reading, and science.

This is not a facilities problem. However, the school district, nonetheless, is asking taxpayers to open their wallets, once again, to hand them an additional $91.5M to upgrade facilities. Their last successful facilities bond referendum was for $22M in 2016.

On its website, the west metro school district lists key reasons for proposing the referendum, which would increase the property tax bill by $176 annually on a $400,000 house.

Following over a year of research, a demographic study of the school district, a community survey and staff focus groups, the Westonka School Board Facilities Committee has identified three priorities with regard to facilities improvements: 

1. districtwide security enhancements to incorporate best practice safety standards; 

2. districtwide deferred maintenance improvements; 

3. and a redesign of Mound Westonka High School to enhance the learning environment and improve functionality, safety and pride.

The school district contracted for two surveys to gauge the community’s appetite for the proposed project and the increased property taxes to fund it. But watchdog Shannon Bruce, a former Minnestrista city councilor and mayoral candidate, says she only found out about the first survey through an information request to the school district.

The first survey, completed in September 2022 asked 400 participants about their views on a proposed $65M bond referendum. The second, subsequent survey, asked 625 participants about a $93M bond referendum. The earlier September survey was discovered by this author only after a data practices request showed the school district had paid Morris Leatherman $16,000 for the first survey and then paid them an additional $9,000 for the second one.

Bruce goes on to surmise the potential reasons behind the follow-up survey by Westonka school district officials just last month.

Readers might wonder why the school district only publicized the results of the latter, second survey. The following could be why:

First Survey (400 participants/$65M referendum):

-“lack of funding” was indicated by only 16% as a serious issue.

-“facility needs” was indicated by only 3% as a serious issue.

-40% indicated they were “unsure” or “nothing” was a serious issue with the school district.

-Job performance rating of teachers far exceeded ratings for school board members and administrator (question was dropped from 2nd survey)

-44% said property taxes were high59% said school is adequately funded84% said school facilities were Excellent or Good

-38% opposed “HS Stadium” referendum spending

-Only 21% didn’t agree with the statement “Westonka School District currently provides for sufficient learning spaces”

-Only 38% didn’t agree with the statement “Westonka has enough school space to accommodate enrollment”

-Survey showed a large majority, 57%, were labeled “persuadables,” (i.e., not totally supportive) of a $65M referendum

The results should provide the basis for plenty to talk about for the parents and taxpayers who show up for the Westonka School Board meeting tonight.