Rochester Public Schools look for a new path forward after levy fails

School Leaders Look for a Path Forward

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(ABC 6 News) – Rochester Public School’s tech referendum came up just short on election day, failing by less than one percent. Now, the school district looks to find a new path forward.

“It was a complex message to get across,” said Rochester Superintendent Dr. Kent Pekel.

RPS asked taxpayers for $10 million a year over the next ten years. That would have freed up $7 million to maintain class sizes, which school officials say are already higher than desired.

But now, there will be budget cuts.

“With 10 million dollars that we have to cut from the budget. The largest portion of our budget is salaries and benefits for our teachers. We are not going to be able to lower class sizes because that mean hiring more teachers,” said Rochester School Board Chair Cathy Nathan.

Some of the money from this levy would have gone towards cyber security. While the district has made some improvements they say if there were cheaper options they would’ve found them by now. Pekel said the thought of another attack is concerning.

“It is clearly rampant in our society right now, but we have greatly strengthened our protection. And so, I know we are in a better place, but anyone who says they are completely safe from it could find themselves regretting that statement real quick,” said Pekel.

If this levy had passed, Pekel said Rochester would’ve operated with similar funding to school districts like Lakeville and Elk River. But those communities have significantly fewer students than Rochester, and higher median incomes.

“Rochester needs to think about the fact that are and seek to remain a global center for medicine, science, service to humanity and we have to have kids in this city that are prepared to access those jobs,” said Dr. Pekel.

But John Whelan with “Say No to the Tax Man” said the districts test scores have dropped significantly over the last ten years and they aren’t doing their basic duty and focusing on core academic standards.

“They could come up with $3 million overnight by going back to system of equality for students as opposed to equity because they equity initiatives they are now spending over 3 million dollars a year,” said Whelan.

Pekel has a few ideas in mind to keep the school district funded, including renewing the 2015 levy, worth $17 million per year.

“We will have to cut 17 million from the budget in 2025, after cutting 10 million form the budget in 2024, after cutting 14 million form the budget in 2023, after cutting 7 million from the budget in 2022. So, this is one thing we can do right now so we can help get ourselves on a more stable path,” said Dr. Pekel.

Pekel also expressed interest in giving teachers a pay bump. But he said all of this will be worked out this spring when the district drafts its budget.