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Brainerd schools: Survey results encourage possible Brainerd referendum

Brainerd Public Schools superintendent Laine Larson speaks during a board retreat Monday in Brainerd. Zach Kayser/Brainerd Dispatch

Brainerd School District leadership received some encouraging news Monday on their expansion plans.

Respondents to a scientific survey conducted by the Morris Leatherman firm in September and October gave positive feedback for the board as it considers whether to propose a referendum to finance its expansion and renovation of school facilities.

The school board reviewed the survey results during a retreat Monday evening at the Washington Educational Services Building in Brainerd.

Superintendent Laine Larson began the meeting with an overview of the six-phase process to getting school building improvements. At the moment, the district is in phase four, during which it would narrow down its options and decide what the expansion plan is, Larson said.

Phase five will involve the referendum, when the school board asks voters to raise their own taxes to fund the growth of school district infrastructure.

The district collected public opinions on its expansion plans via an unscientific online survey, which ended Oct. 18. District residents can see the plans for changing school buildings as they evolve and are posted on www.blueprint181.org

Larson said every document created during the expansion process is on the site.

Consultant Todd Rapp of Rapp Strategies explained the district actually did two surveys: a scientific survey conducted among 400 people by phone that followed scientific methodology, and the less formal online survey in which more than 1,300 people participated.

He cautioned no survey should be followed to the letter, and the results were a "snapshot in time" that could have changed since the survey was taken.

Rapp said with each of the many surveys he completed in his career, there was a question he wished he asked, but didn't. The board should not be preoccupied with those questions, he cautioned.

The phone survey had a 4-5 percent margin of error and was conducted Sept. 26-Oct. 6. It asked 83 questions during an interview of about 24 minutes.

Rapp was relatively certain the phone survey did not include any district employees. With the online survey, however, about a quarter of respondents worked for the district. Rapp focused his presentation around the phone survey.

Respondents gave an 89 percent positive job performance for teachers and 68 percent for the superintendent and the administration. Rapp said the public's positive feeling toward Brainerd School District was unusually high relative to other districts.

"The public is generally satisfied with the work you're doing on behalf of kids and staff," Rapp said.

Twenty-three percent said they would vote against almost any tax increase for schools, 29 percent would vote for almost any tax increase, and 48 percent said it would depend on the conditions.

Rapp said the number who responded favorably to the tax question was higher than other districts in Minnesota.

Less positive news for the potential referendum was results indicating a majority of respondents said buildings and funding were already adequate.

Fifty-nine percent said funding for schools was adequate, but 38 percent said it wasn't.

Sixty-four percent said the high school met the district's needs, and 60 percent said the elementary schools were meeting the district's needs

About 1 in 10 said they were following the expansion process closely, Rapp said. Thirty-eight percent said they use the district newsletter for their primary source of information on the school, whereas just 14 percent said they used local media.

A large portion of respondents, 69 percent, said the school district was doing a good job of involving parents and local residents in expansion discussions. However, 66 percent of respondents said the school district was moving too fast with its expansion plans.

"That doesn't mean, don't go forward in April," Rapp said.

April has been floated as a possible referendum date in prior board meetings, but the board has not yet voted on a definite month or date.

Rapp identified several "critical information gaps" between the district and the public: how bonding for the expansion would reduce taxpayer costs, why taxpayers should pay for the buildings when the state already funds schools generally, and the specific space and capacity needs of the district.

However, Rapp also said there was an unusually high voter participation rate among residents of the Brainerd area. According to voter data, more than half of registered voters have voted in a school election at some point, Rapp said.

More on expansion

The board unanimously voted to authorize school administrators to begin whittling down the options of which renovations and expansions to do at which schools. Larson said the board would have a recommendation from the administration on a final plan at the Nov. 27 meeting and the board would possibly vote on it and a potential referendum ballot question (or questions) Dec. 11.

The board also voted unanimously to approve $7,500 for an architectural floor plan and 3-D rendering for the high school.