Nov. 3—MANKATO — Days from now Mankato Area Public Schools voters will decide whether one or both of the two bond referendum questions on the Nov. 7 ballot will pass.
The Free Press reached out to voters for their questions about the two ballot measures, one of which will ask residents to approve $105 million for security, early learning access and learning and wellness spaces and the other that will ask voters to approve $15 million for high school stadium upgrades.
Here are some of the questions received.
Q: Has there been a discussion about the safety of grass vs. turf and the option of a hybrid surface? A recent article published by the Mankato Free Press discussed the increase of injuries some sports have seen after switching to the turf surface. While a turf surface may be more durable and less maintenance, what would be the possible cost of injured athletes (wearing the "wrong" shoes, adjusting their form, etc.)?
A: Supt. Paul Peterson said the district opted for turf because it's multi-purpose.
"What a turf field provides for us is much more in use, not only during the instructional day, like for phys ed, but then obviously for outside of the instructional day with practices, games and then also on your weekends," he said.
"When it comes to things like youth, middle school and high school, turf has been demonstrated in multiple areas to be a safe playing surface for children. There have been some recent high-profile injuries at the athlete level, but it's important that, you know, we recognize that just as a community of kids ... we're very comfortable given the technology that's out there that this is a safe option."
Q: Will this increase camera security at schools? While our child's bully was caught via camera at PWMS (Prairie Winds Middle School), we have had incidents where a camera wasn't present (or working) at East. Again, it seems ridiculous to have cameras everywhere but when a bully is relentless and knows the right places to avoid being seen, having proof can mean the world to the victim.
A: Peterson said cameras are an important part of their safety and security plan already.
"We have hundreds of cameras across our campuses. We don't see that going away. We actually see that being enhanced," he said.
"The other thing that's important for readers to realize is that we, our camera system and our communication system is directly linked in to Mankato Public Safety, and so there is no delay when it comes to sharing information."
Q: I'm curious how the district can claim to be remaining unbiased and separate from the vote, meanwhile dropping propaganda out via mail at taxpayer expense each week.
A: Peterson said just like the district's regular newsletters, the school district pays for the informational mailings. They don't, however, pay for advocacy mailings from separate groups.
"We are committed to our ethics, and it's really important that we maintain an informational perspective," Peterson said.
"I, as the superintendent, it is ultimately my responsibility to make sure that anything going on from the school district is informational in nature. I've looked at every post, every day, every piece that we've done since the middle of August, and I'm very confident that we have maintained an informational perspective throughout that."
Q: I'm curious why the school district is allowed to hold their voting in "off" election years, which I feel practically guarantees a low turnout. It seems they feel this is to their advantage. Is there a way to change this?
A: Peterson said the law allows for bond referendums to be held five times during the calendar year and that the board chose November because that's when voters typically go to the polls.
"Our facility challenges have been with us since 2017, 2018. But as things came together over the last year, as enrollments have stabilized, as the budget has been right sized, we felt that this was now the right time."
Peterson said holding the referendum during an off year also lets voters focus solely on the referendum.
He also said that recent early voting numbers show a strong turnout.
Blue Earth County Elections Administrator Michael Stalberger said earlier this week that as of Oct. 27, 1,201 ballots had been issued and 1,057 ballots were accepted. The 1,057 ballots accepted equates to about 2.7% of registered voters already voting in the election.
He also said the volume of voting has picked up the last few days, averaging more than 85 per day toward the end of last week, and that his office anticipated this to continue to increase this week.
He added that the Mankato district hasn't had an off-year election since some of the absentee voting options have changed.
A Nov. 2017 election had about a 15.5% turnout.
Stalberger elaborated in an emailed answer on the district's ability to hold elections on off years.
He said school districts and other local municipalities often have elections in the off years, and the school is authorized by law to call for a special election for a question where voters are authorized by law to "pass judgment," such as a referendum election.
He also said elections must be held on one of the state's uniform election days.
There are five of them, including Nov. 7 and one each in February, April, May and August.
Q: Many of our students, particularly in junior high and high school, are lagging academically and feel isolated within our school community. How do the proposed improvements support these students, both academically and in becoming more integrated into school activities?
A: Peterson pointed to question one's safety goals as well as early learning elements as some of the ways the referendum supports these ideas.
"Then, the third part of question one is on West High School and the repurposing of that space ... to make sure that we provide flexibility spaces where kids can collaborate, work together.
Q: What is the yearly property tax liability on a per-student basis? Can the school elaborate on strategies to manage and control these costs? Additionally, could they shed light on why these costs are escalating at a rate surpassing inflation?
A: Peterson said bond referendums do not add an increase on a per pupil basis.
He also cited a growing tax base as one of the region's strengths.
"Mankato is the envy of many communities within the state, because we have people who want to move here, want to build here," he said.
"All of that economic activity provides for a larger tax base to then pay for, to help pay the costs that either come from the county, the city or the school district."
He also mentioned that other bonds will be falling off the books in the next couple of years.
"Remember when Rosa Parks was built, that was a bond referendum. When Prairie Winds and East High School was renovated, that was a bond and that will eventually fall off the books. These aren't just, you don't just add tax burden," he said.
Peterson said school referendums are often a 20- or 30-year bond; the bond in front of voters this year is a 20-year-bond.
The school district has a tool on its website where voters can put in their information to find out what their individual tax impact will be. That web address is https://www.isd77.org/vote2023.