Last week, Hutchinson School District voters narrowly approved a bond referendum granting the school permission to pursue a $28.8 million project to renovate Park Elementary and West Elementary. So what's next?
"We'll spend the next 10-12 months in the design faze," said superintendent Daron VanderHeiden. "We'll work with building staff, architects, engineers on exactly what it will look like, the design features, site features."
Prior to the referendum, the school district invited stakeholders around Hutchinson to workshops to discuss the building plan and priorities. VanderHeiden said there will be similar meetings going forward.
"We will have opportunities for stakeholders to be involved," he said.
Construction is expected to start late 2020 and be completed by the fall of 2022. The district will make plans to disrupt classes as little as possible.
"The bond was our last major facility issue," VanderHeiden said.
But the School Board and voters will have other decisions to make in the next few years. While bond referendums provide schools with tax dollars to pay for specific building expenses, schools around the state, including Hutchinson, fund their operating expenses with local levies.
These levies, which must be approved by district voters, provide schools with 10 years of funding to pay expenses not covered by the state and federal government. Funding is collected in a property tax assessed to homes in the district. This year, 40 school districts, including Glencoe-Silver Lake and Litchfield, asked voters to approve operating levies. Many levies, such as those for GSL and Litchfield, were renewals of expiring levies, but requested more funds than 10 years ago to keep up with inflation.
Hutchinson Public Schools currently has two levies:
- $128 per pupil, which expires with taxes payable in 2021 and covers the school's fiscal year ending June 30, 2022
- $860 per pupil, which expires with taxes payable in 2023 and covers the school's fiscal year ending June 30, 2024
The School Board has not made a decision as to how the expiring levies will be addressed, and no timeline has been set.
"It's fair to say we would do something before the expiration dates," VanderHeiden said. "The levy dollars are important to the operating side of things."
Over the past few years, the school has altered its offerings to address a budget shortage and keep the school's reserves healthy. Two years ago, $1 million was cut from the budget. The move drew public outcry because it included the removal of middle school art, a cut which was later redressed in the midst of staffing changes. The following year, $500,000 was cut, followed by nearly $500,000 more for the current school year.
Cuts to this point have kept the budget balanced through 2021, which is when the first levy will be up for renewal or removal.
Administrators have largely pointed to declining enrollment — and thus a reduction in per-pupil funding — as the source of budget strain. Since the 2014-15 school year, enrollment has declined from roughly 2,900 to between 2,800 and 2,700. The enrollment trend follows a state trend of lower birth rates, and fewer students enrolling in school compared to students graduating.