Survey finds favorable climate for $64 million school vote
By Mark Anderson
A survey conducted by the Morris Leatherman Company determined that the Staples-Motley School District is facing a favorable climate to ask voters for a building referendum, two years after a similar referendum was voted down. The survey found that the public prefers the two-building option of fixing up and adding to the existing high school and elementary school, which would cost around $64 million.
A 2019 referendum for a $56 million project did no pass. While the current two building project has a similar scope, the higher cost is due to increased construction costs and more heavy remodeling to be done at the high school building.
At a Dec. 7 Staples-Motley School Board work session, Peter Leatherman of the Morris Leatherman Company told the board that they are finding lower support for public schools around the state, but that is not the case in Staples.
“Unlike other school districts, the atmospherics here are stable. The pandemic has not had an adverse affect on public opinion of what is happening in the school districts,” said Leatherman. “In some places folks are not happy with public schools, but in Staples it is not falling off.”
The survey was done through 400 telephone interviews in the district in November, with 37 percent cellphone only homes and 50 percent homes with both cell phone and landline phones.
Those surveyed said what they liked most about the school district was good teachers, broad programs and good academics. They felt the most serious issues are the pandemic, lack of funding, facilities needs and high taxes.
On a question on the quality of schools compared to neighboring districts, 22 percent said Staples-Motley was better, 59 percent said about the same and nine percent said worse. “The norm is about two to one, you are about two and a half to one, so there are more folks indicating that they are better,” said Leatherman.
The school also received better than average ratings on questions about meeting the needs of students, creating a welcoming culture and engaging the public. The school’s handling of the pandemic also received high ratings, with 77 percent saying they have done excellent or good. A majority felt the school was focused on educational needs, not just the need to keep schools open.
“It is a strong endorsement on how the school handled opening this fall,” said Leatherman.
On a question about job performance, the school board, superintendent/administration and teachers all had higher ratings than in a similar survey taken two years ago. “These results are counter to what we are seeing elsewhere,” said Leatherman. He said a normal rating is about 2.5 positive responses to every one negative response, but the school district is seeing 4.5 positive to one negative.
One survey question result ran counter to the board’s plan to implement a building referendum: “Do current facilities meet needs?” In the 2018 survey, 77 percent said yes, and that number moved up to 82 percent in this year’s survey.
“People don’t believe the buildings are in terrible shape and don’t meet the needs,” said Leatherman. “The key is linking what is happening in the classroom to educational needs.”
After the survey respondents were given a short explanation of the needs in the district, they were asked if they would support a two building option that would cost $64 million, or a one building option at $80 million. Twenty percent said they would support either option, 31 said they would only support the $64 million option, and $17 percent said they only support the $80 million option. The remaining 30 percent would not support either project.
On a question about tax increases, 25 percent said they were against all tax increases, 27 percent were in favor of all, and 46 percent said they would be for some. That tax predisposition was the same as in 2018.
“The overall atmospherics for the district is good, counter to what we are seeing across the state,” said Leatherman. “The two facility plan probably has most support, it is easier to support two at a lower cost than one at a higher cost.
Board member Bruce Lund said the survey two years ago also showed a favorable atmosphere for a referendum, but it did not come close to passing.
Superintendent Shane Tappe said this year’s survey asked about the quality of information the public received about the referendum two years ago, where 38 percent rated the communication either fair or poor. “That cannot happen again,” said Tappe. “Communication, along with quality, really derailed the project.”
Tappe said another key will be to tell the public about the value of their tax impact on the project. If there is no referendum, the school is expected to spend $14 million on repairs and still be left with an old building that will need $7 million more in repairs later on. “Do you want to spend $150 per year (in taxes) for the $14 million project or for $250 you get the $64 million version,” said Tappe.
Tappe said they will present the board with a proposal to move forward with a referendum for a two building project at $64 at their Dec. 21 board meeting.