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Commentary: Prior Lake-Savage must respect all board members, district residents

By Wes Mader Community Columnist Jul 10, 2019

Nexus, Prior Lake-Savage Area Schools’ controversial consultant, has now been paid over $20 million since initial hiring — not a bad gig for a company that didn’t exist until hired by the district, but not good for taxpayers who foot the bill.

The controversial issue of school attendance boundaries has now been decided by a vote of four members of the School Board (seven members in total). Based upon news articles and numerous letters to the editor, it’s apparent not all parents are cheering the result. Unfortunately, the Board was faced with only win-lose options as a consequence of faulty management of open enrollment.

Like many political entities, the School Board and administration seem to operate on the premise that bigger is better without regard to unintended consequences. In spite of population growth that has continuously imposed space/facility problems, the Board majority seems oblivious to the impact of aggressive open enrollment.

To be specific, student population at the end of school year was 8,870, with 1,091 from outside the district. That exceeds 12% as compared to the 1% minimum allowed by state law. Districts with excess capacity are expected to welcome open enrollment. It’s unexpected when an overcrowded district (like Prior Lake-Savage) permits open enrollment to reach over 10 times the minimum. If the district had reasonably capped open enrollment, there would have been no need for an additional grade school nor the need to bus students who live within sight of an existing school to somewhere else.

District Finance Director Julie Cink regularly cites open enrollment as providing needed revenue while ignoring the fact that revenue created by open enrollees doesn’t cover the cost for their education. Records indicate it costs about $10,000 per year per student to operate our schools, with 70% of the revenue from the state and 30% from real-estate taxes. Since no real-estate taxes come with open-enrolled students, in-district taxpayers make up the difference. The revenue shortfall with 1,091 open-enrolled students is over $3 million.

Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending upon your viewpoint), a significant number of students from our district enroll in other districts, leaving tax-dollars behind that partially offset the shortfall.

More than once I’ve heard financial executives in the business world jokingly say if you’re losing money on every single device you sell, you need volume to make it up. While intended as a joke, it’s apparently a fiscal strategy embraced at Prior Lake-Savage. One might wonder how much influence Nexus has had in evolving this strategy. Obviously open enrollment drives up the demand for additional facilities and increases Nexus fees.

For some, open enrollment is unfair to in-district students. Open-enrolled elementary students are allowed to list three schools as their preference, with school principals and administrators determining where they end up. In-district students are assigned to a school based upon where they live. While in-district students can apply to attend a school different from the one assigned, I understand options are quite limited, particularly given the number of parents unhappy with where their kids are ending up.

When in-district parents whose real estate taxes are used to fund education for out-of-district students appear to have less school choice than open-enrolled students, the fairness issue is understandable.

Allegations that the process for determining attendance boundaries was neither open nor transparent have been denied by Superintendent Teri Staloch. While I have no basis to offer an opinion about the allegation, what continues to be apparent is that the Board majority doesn’t seem much interested in minority members’ views. A lack of respect is often evident, with Board majority members limiting discussion to subjects they alone wish to discuss.

It’s my humble opinion that a requisite for representative governance is for the majority to demonstrate respect for those with whom they disagree. While mutual respect has all but disappeared in Washington, we ought to be able to do better locally.

While on the subject of respect, the Board majority and administration should demonstrate respect for all residents in the district. In a recent meeting, a teacher said, as though it was law and fact, that employees of the district are bound by law to tell the truth while citizen groups are free to lie. This was almost verbatim of what appeared in a district newsletter just prior to the referendum.

This attitude reflects disrespect to residents and well-intentioned groups alike. As long as it remains prevalent with some in district leadership, many residents will continue to believe they have no voice.

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Wes Mader is a former Prior Lake mayor. Following retirement after serving as president of Bowmar Aerospace and Defense in Ft. Wayne, Indiana, Wes and his wife Char retired in Prior Lake.