At Litchfield Public Schools, our faculty and staff embrace the challenge to deliver an ambitious curriculum, classroom support and a nurturing environment that meets the needs of each and every student. They deserve nothing less.

But today, our school district faces an array of challenges that grit and commitment alone won’t overcome. Federal and state funding for education is failing to keep up with inflation, resulting in inadequate support for our 1,500-plus students. Meanwhile, our aging school buildings have become too expensive to maintain and they can no longer support the educational programs that benefit our students.

For several years, the school district has made difficult budget cuts, which has led to larger class sizes, diminished support services and limited access to certain programs. Despite these efforts to right-size the budget, Litchfield schools still faced an operating deficit of $759,000 last year, as costs continue to rise.

Compounding our budget challenges is the condition of our school buildings. Many classrooms are too cramped for students to move around, collaborate and do more hands-on learning. While we have continued to make repairs to our facilities, major infrastructure and design improvements are needed to extend their useful life well into the future.

At Lake Ripley Elementary, for example, the cafeteria is located in the gymnasium, which no longer can function as a gym because we need it for lunch activities. Special education is being held in the school’s original locker rooms and showers.

At both Litchfield Middle School and High School, classrooms can no longer adequately support art, vocational and tech classes because of poor design or lack of room for equipment and work space. The existing pool is too small to host sectional meets and lacks handicap accessibility, while the locker rooms and weight rooms are not big enough for all the students who need to use them.

With a tightening budget and school facilities that have fallen behind, the Litchfield School District is at a crossroads. So, over the past several months, we have reached out to the Litchfield community for guidance. What should be our priorities? What do you want to see for our children and the future of our schools?

The school district held a series of listening sessions with residents this past fall. Then, in the spring, the school board convened a Community Task Force to continue studying how we can make our schools work better. That was followed by a community-wide survey in May.

Our residents didn’t hold back. You had tough questions and ambitious goals. You want to see dynamic educational programming with classroom space that is designed for modern-day learning. You want our children to be safe with better security controls in all school buildings. And you want us to attend to maintenance to extend the life of our existing facilities.

Using this feedback to prioritize, the school board put forward a plan on Aug. 12 that modernizes our school buildings and provides adequate staffing and support for all of our students. As part of this initiative, residents will be asked to consider three ballot questions on Nov. 5.

The first ballot question seeks to increase our operating levy by $625 per pupil, which will add $1.041 million to the district’s operating budget. This will ensure that we maintain current class sizes and programs, while stabilizing our budget to avoid future shortfalls.

The second ballot question seeks $33 million for investments to remodel our existing school buildings to make them more safe and secure and provide critical maintenance and environmental controls. Further, more classrooms and collaborative spaces will be added to accommodate special education, new technology and vocational programs.

The third ballot question — which is contingent on passage of both questions 1 and 2 — seeks $11.4 million to build a new competitive pool at the high school along with an expanded weight room, fitness spaces and a soccer field. The pool would be designed as the first phase of a possible community recreation center that could serve all Litchfield residents.

The tax impact depends on the value of your property and which ballot questions prevail. If Question 1 is approved, it would increase property taxes by $11.84/month for a home valued at $137,000. Question 2 would result in a property tax impact of $9.53/month for that same home, while Question 3 would be $5.53/month.

We are grateful for the residents, parents, businesses, community leaders and volunteers who provide critical support to our schools.

You will learn more about the school board’s plan in coming weeks. Litchfield residents have played a critical role in the shaping of this plan. We want all residents to continue to be a part of the process. If you have any questions, you can reach me at bsimenson@isd465.org or call 320-894-4098.

As always, we are Dragon proud.

Brent Schacherer is publisher of the Hutchinson Leader and Litchfield Independent Review.

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