See more of the story

ROCHESTER — Residents here rejected a $10 million technology levy proposal from the school district last fall. District officials are hoping people approve a new request worth twice as much, or else they say they'll have to close schools.

That was the message Superintendent Kent Pekel brought to Rochester Public Schools Board members Tuesday after he revealed a proposed $20 million operating levy increase.

The money — totaling about $200 million over the next decade — would largely keep ongoing services throughout the district. More than $5 million would cover the district's budget for school counselors, for example, as those positions are now paid for using federal COVID funds.

Other items include a few more positions for the district's music departments, new coordinators for everything from grants to post-high school career opportunities, and ongoing support for industrial and career education, parent programs and partnerships with Mayo Clinic. The district would also use levy funds to maintain smaller programs such as staff positions at Quarry Hill Nature Center, a driver's ed program and Mayo High School's planetarium.

Property owners with a home worth about $350,000 would see their taxes go up about $345 annually, or $29 per month, according to district estimates.

Those programs wouldn't necessarily be on the chopping block if the referendum were to fail, though. Pekel said the district would likely look to shutter schools, cut staff, raise class sizes and reduce student support programs if it doesn't get voter support.

"We are quite close to financial stability," Pekel said. "If it doesn't pass, we've got to go back to where we were."

Board members appear likely to move forward with the levy proposal at an upcoming meeting. Pekel said he'd present a rough budget cut plan to the board later this summer outlining specific steps the district would take if the levy fails come November.

The district has cut $21 million over the past two years — a side effect of schools hiring more staff than needed as student enrollment hasn't met projections while state education funding hasn't kept up with inflation.

Rochester voters narrowly denied a $10 million levy proposal last year that would have gone toward technology upgrades throughout the district. It would have freed up other funding to cover school needs.

In response, district officials announced they would shutter three schools amid $10 million in budget cuts. Pekel said the district would have likely cut close to $20 million in total for the upcoming school year had Mayo Clinic not stepped in with a large donation last December.

School districts across Minnesota are grappling with similar funding concerns. In Duluth, voters rejected a $52 million technology levy Tuesday. District officials there hoped the new funding would help replace thousands of student computers and tablets among other needs.

Rochester may have better luck this year, according to consultants with Morris Leatherman. The company recently conducted a survey of more than 600 residents and concluded that a narrow majority could be persuaded to support a levy increase no matter what.

Residents also felt more favorable about Rochester schools compared with other school districts throughout the state on average, according to consultant Peter Leatherman.

"You have high support for everything we tested," Leatherman told the board Tuesday.

Board Chair Cathy Nathan said was pleased with the district's transparency over where the money would go and which budget cuts could take place. But she warned that Rochester schools likely won't get another bailout from Mayo Clinic if a new referendum fails.

"It's important to also reinforce that there are no other knights in shining armor coming," she said.