The Park Rapids School Board on Monday heard reports about a recent scientific survey to gauge the community’s readiness to vote in a school tax increase.

Peter Leatherman with the Morris Leatherman Company discussed phone interviews his firm held with a 400-household random sample of the district’s residents, conducted between June 16 and July 1. The purpose of the survey was to study the chances of a ballot question about raising taxes to fund school improvements.

Leatherman noted that in general, 64 percent of the district’s households have no children living at home; 61 percent own homes valued over $150,000; 75 percent have been to college; and 57 percent are financially comfortable. Political affiliation is evenly split between Republicans and Democrats at 37 percent each, with 22 percent independent, while 49 percent identify as conservatives, 29 percent as moderates and 18 percent as liberals.

In survey responses, Leatherman reported that 84 percent rated the quality of the district’s public schools as good to excellent.

Investing in the schools

Asked whether they agree or disagree with a series of statements:

  • 98 percent agreed that good quality schools increase property values.

  • 92 percent agreed it is better to make long-term investments than short-term fixes.

  • 87 percent agreed the schools give good value for the investment.

  • 86 percent trust the district to do what’s right for children.

  • 85 percent said it was a good decision to build Century School.

  • 92 percent said it makes sense to pay off the bond for building Century before making new investments in school facilities.

  • 55 percent said that as school bonds are about to be retired, it is time to invest in school improvements. Of those agreeing with this statement, 55 percent advised updating all the school buildings while 27 percent said the focus should be on the high school.

Asked whether the schools are a good investment and if they would support a property tax increase, 66 percent said yes. Leatherman said the 22 percent opposed to this represent a “core opposition” to a school tax referendum, but is “a very manageable number. Anytime that’s below 30 percent, we feel that the referendum … will be successful.”

Favorable tax climate

Comparing local school property taxes to other communities, 49 perceived them as about average, 3 percent as low and 37 percent as high – below the 50 percent threshold that Leatherman called a “hostile tax climate,” making it difficult to pass a tax increase. He said the lower number “means that they’re willing to have a conversation.”

Regarding a possible property tax increase for the schools, 19 of those surveyed were predisposed in favor, 26 percent against and 54 were “persuadable.” Leatherman called these figures “manageable,” noting that “the devil will be in the details” when winning voters over to a specific proposal.

Asked how much of a tax increase they would tolerate, the median response was about $9 per month on the average house. Discounting the 30 percent who answered “nothing,” Leatherman said that median goes up to $12 to $15.

Asked about a $52.9 million bond referendum that would increase property taxes by $6 per month on a $150,000 house and $11 per month on a $250,000 house, survey respondents were 57 percent in support and 37 percent opposed.

Regarding whether the referendum should ask voters for the entire $52.9 million or for only $40.7 million with the remaining funds to come from school board-approved sources, 39 percent favored the $52.9 million question, 24 percent favored the split funding, and 37 percent said it makes no difference.

Move or keep?

Ratings of school facilities were 78 percent favorable to 19 percent unfavorable for Park Rapids High School; 85 to 11 percent for Century School; and 75 to 19 percent for the Frank White Education Center. Considering these positive ratings, Leatherman said the challenge will be to propose how to move them from “good” to “excellent,” showing how this will impact children’s education.

Asked whether to keep the same grade configuration or move grades 7-8 from Century to the high school, 47 percent said keep them the same and 25 percent said move them. Of those saying “move,” 65 percent favored remodeling the existing buildings, while 31 percent favored building a new high school – about 8 percent of the community.

Leatherman noted that at least two-thirds of the community’s supported seven specific components of the proposed facility improvements:

  • 86 percent for updating HVAC systems.

  • 84 percent for high school vocational paces.

  • 81 percent for secured entryways.

  • 75 percent for high school science classrooms.

  • 75 percent for improving mechanical systems.

  • 72 percent for roof and mechanical improvements at Frank White.

  • 66 percent for high school music and arts classrooms.

Also, there was 59 percent support for repairing parking lots, 58 percent for additional high school gym space and 55 percent for the high school auditorium. “This is an incredibly strong package of components,” said Leatherman.

One question or two?

Asked whether they preferred to break the bonding project into two ballot questions – one about general improvements, and a separate question about rebuilding or reconfiguring the high school – or to have everything in one question, or to defer the high school pieces for another bonding year, 38 percent favored funding the entire project with one ballot question; 30 percent, the entire project with two questions; 8 percent said wait on the high school piece; 5 percent were opposed to the high school project; and 16 percent were opposed to any referendum.

Asked when they want to see the referendum on the ballot, 75 percent said November 2020; 13 percent, spring 2021; and 7 percent, November 2021.

Online survey

Todd Rapp, CEO of Rapp Solutions, Inc., also shared the results of an online survey his firm conducted alongside the phone survey.

Rapp said 344 participants within the school district finished the survey. Of those, 20 percent are on the school district’s staff and 57 percent are non-staff parents of students. Since they chose to respond, Rapp noted, they’re not a representative sample of the community, but the survey was desired to allow stakeholders to give their input.

Compared to the phone survey, he said, online participants are more critical about the quality of the high school and Frank White buildings. Staff, in particular, are more concerned about space issues, more positive about online learning, more supportive of grade reconfiguration, have a higher tax tolerance and are more strongly in favor of the referendum than parents and the general public.

School board questions

School board chair Sherry Safratowich asked whether one ballot question or two would have better chances of success.

Rapp said, “It’s natural that people would say, ‘Just show us a plan.’ If you look at the tax impact, you will find that, of just putting the entire $52 million on the ballot, the tax impact falls into where your population is.”

Leatherman said, “The simpler the better. One question is always the ideal.” He reminded the school board that the survey showed strong support for the entire package.

Board member Gary Gauldin said, “I want a separate question out there on a totally new high school, period. … I see no point in putting money into refurbishing the infrastructure, and then a couple years from now saying, ‘This is not meeting our programming needs.’”

Recalling that the school board has voiced support for grade reconfiguration, Gauldin added, “Let’s put our marbles out there on the table.”

Rapp said that if the school board decides to put a question about replacing the high school on the November ballot, it needs to convince the voting public that this is needed before early voting starts on Sept. 13.

Leatherman agreed, saying that perceptions – like the 78 percent of the community calling the high school “good” – take time to change. “Districts have done that,” he said. “It’s just, two months is a narrow time” to do that.

Both consultants reminded the board that a majority of those surveyed want to see the question on this November’s ballot.

“I want this sucker to pass while I’m still on the board,” said Gary Gauldin, whose term expires at the end of the year. “So, let’s put the best game plan we’ve got on the table … for the people to vote on.”

Jason Splett with ICS Consulting said the board needs to submit a review and comment about a proposed ballot question to the Minnesota Department of Education by Aug. 10. He proposed bringing a presentation to the school board on Aug. 3 and possibly having a special meeting on Aug. 10 to approve the review and comment.

‘Top takeaways’

In a memo following the meeting, Superintendent Lance Bagstad listed the “top takeaways from the surveys.” Among them, Bagstad said:

  • “Park Rapids Area Schools provide a high-quality education. The community values that investment. …

  • “We must ensure we provide a modern, hands-on education for students. Key elements of our next plan include: investing in our current buildings – they are not in bad shape overall, but we know they need updates; improving safety, health and classroom education to prepare for next century learning; considering grade reconfiguration, as it fits into a broader plan. …

  • “When it comes to tax impact, the plan options fit within the expectations of most community members. Whether there are one or two referendum questions, community members want to see the entire plan on the ballot in November.”

The school board’s next meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. Monday, July 20 at the Frank White Education Center.