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2003: Year in Review

Voters approve Referendum

Hastings voters approved the school district tax levy referendum Nov. 4 by a two-to-one margin, which could help save teaching jobs and educational programs.

The district was seeking a tax levy of $690 per student over eight years or a cost of about $411 a year for taxpayers with a home valued at $250,000 while at the same time eliminating the existing levy of $110 per student. The Hastings school district ranked last among conference schools in dollars per student generated by levy. Most school districts in the conference had levies between $600 and more than $800 per student.

The levy will generate about $33 million for the district over the next eight years and allows the district to receive equalization funds (about $1 million a year) from the state throughout the term of the levy.

The emotional and controversial issue, as well as a school board election, drew 56.5 percent of the eligible voters in Independent School District 200. Of those voting, 5,373 (about 62 percent) supported the levy, with 3,331 voting no.

The outcome was a complete turnaround from the 2001 election, when 65 percent of those who went to the polls voted against the referendum.

"On behalf of the school board and our staff, I want to express my appreciation for the vote of confidence and support from the community," Supt. Tim Collins said.

A grass-roots community group called Choose Kids helped provide information to the public concerning the district's needs and what the levy would mean if it were to fail.

Without the referendum, the school district was facing $1.2 million or more in budget cuts for the couple of years while the state imposed a freeze on funding increases for public schools. School district officials and the Choose Kids committee painted a bleak picture to the public if the referendum were to have failed. Ramifications could have included the certain closing of the Tilden building, which is utilized as a kindergarten center in 2003-04, further increases to class sizes, the elimination of fifth-grade music programs and the gifted-and-talented program, an increase to the maximum 2-mile walking distance for all students, continued staff reductions, a decrease in the athletics budget and the possibility of 6-hour school days, meaning middle school and high school students would have fewer electives from which to choose.

Even with a successful referendum, Collins warned the district's financial troubles would not be eliminated.

"We won't substantially reduce class sizes or increase programs, but, hopefully, it will give us some time while the state comes out of its tailspin and can give us 2 percent (increase in state aid)," he said.

- Randy Roberts, staff writer

Cooper is victim of budget cuts

With $1.7 million in budget cuts looming, the Hastings school board last spring acted on administrators' recommendations to close and sell Cooper Elementary School, which had served the district for 44 years.

Dr. Garry Jensen, acting superintendent in March, said eliminating the school would save more than $500,000 a year in maintenance and related costs.

A public meeting was held in March, with many of those in attendance concerned with proposals to close Cooper and cut fifth-grade music.

On April 3, the closing of Cooper effective at the end of the 2002-03 school year became official. The budget cuts also included another 17 teaching positions and cuts to transportation and special education. The transportation cuts led to redistricting the school boundaries for the first time since the 1980s. Redistricting affected 279 students who had to attend different elementary schools. Decisions concerning Cooper and Tilden Elementary School also resulted in the relocation of another 400 students.

The board later spared the fifth-grade music program and the gifted-and-talented program, which were initially recommended to be included in the budget cuts.

There were several factors leading to the budget cuts. An existing school levy only generated $110 per child, decreasing enrollment numbers, and legislative decisions that resulted in 0-percent increases for public schools, meaning school funding could not keep up with increasing insurance costs and inflationary costs.

In December, the school board gave its approval to move forward with the sale of the Cooper building to local developer Greg Jablonske. If all requirements are met, the sale would be for $575,000. Jablonske said he is proposing to use the Cooper building for small business offices.

While the school district was closing Cooper, administrators also changed the use of Tilden building, turning it into an all-kindergarten center at least for one year. The board had seriously discussed closing Tilden which opened the same year as Cooper in 2003. Closing Tilden would save the district another $500,000 a year. But the board decided to turn the building into a kindergarten center, leaving three elementary buildings -- Pinecrest, Kennedy and McAuliffe -- for grades 1-5. Tilden would also house early childhood special education.

- Randy Roberts, staff writer

Auditor's report blasts contract of former superintendent

In September, Independent School District 200 officials were disappointed with a state auditor's report on superintendents' severance packages that singled out Hastings.

The Star Gazette reported in June that the auditor's office was compiling information concerning superintendent contracts. Information provided by the district to the auditor revealed that the Hastings school district was paying former Supt. Wayne Haugen more than $251,000 and family health benefits until the age of 70. Haugen, 58, retired in November 2002 and moved to the Las Vegas, Nev., area, where he later accepted a job with that city's Chamber of Commerce.

The auditor's office released its report in September, stating that Minnesota school boards in general appeared to be masking the true costs of superintendent salaries. State Auditor Pat Awada said the public does not realize that many superintendents receive thousands of dollars above their salary. The additional income includes bonuses, pay for not using sick or vacation days and other benefits.

Haugen's contract was mentioned in a separate report as an example of the auditor's concerns.

"The state auditor has lodged an outrageous attack on superintendents for political purposes," said ISD 200 school board member Don May. "I refuse to give it any credibility. (Awada) is an aspiring politician who wants to make a name for herself at the expense of public education leaders."

The auditor's office moved ahead with its review of superintendent contracts when the contract of an outgoing superintendent with the Eagan-Apple Valley-Rosemount was made public a few months earlier. That contract was initially reported at $350,000, which caused public outcry. The contract was later reported to be considerably less, at about $237,000.

In December, the Hastings school board announced it had reached an agreement with Haugen to amend the severance package. The health insurance piece of the contract was adjusted so that Haugen will receive the family health benefit until he is 66 years old. The board unanimously approved the contract amendment.

- Randy Roberts, staff writer

School board revamped

With many questions from the public concerning school board decisions -- issues ranging from budget decisions to former superintendent Wayne Haugen's severance package --voters on Nov. 4 voted three new members to the school board, and re-electing one.

Leslie Nielsen was the lone incumbent out of four seats up for election elected to the board. Challenger Amy (Tri) Peltier received the most votes, 4, 564 (52.43 of the ballots), with challengers Brad Stoneberg and Ann Grotjohn finishing second and third.

Nielsen barely held onto her position on the board, edging challenger Terry Strandberg by two votes for the fourth seat. The slim margin of victory was enough for Strandberg to request a recount. The recount, held Nov. 14, resulted in an additional vote for both candidates, with Nielsen still holding onto a two-vote victory.

Board chair Ken Linde and board member Al Gorgus, were unsuccessful in re-election bids. Board member Gordon Gathright did not file for re-election.

A total of 11 candidates ran for the school board. The new members will officially begin their terms on the board in January 2004.

- Randy Roberts, staff writer

County makes cuts

As Dakota County worked on its 2004 budget and levy, it was faced with a big challenge due to State of Minnesota funding cuts. Action by the Minnesota Legislature to erase a deficit meant funding reductions to local municipalities -- $12 million to Dakota County.

The State made the following funding cuts to Dakota County -- $4.8 million in categorical revenues, $7.1 million in general cuts, including property tax aids, costs of $1.5 million, which includes housing state prisoners.

To help offset the cuts, Dakota County commissioners approved a hiring freeze in April, restricted spending where feasible, and solicited employee suggestions.

The county also began cross training staff members, reduced the use of winter sand and spring cleanup, and initiated the use of winter sand sweeping for berm construction.

One employee suggestion, an early retirement incentive, allowed county employees to retire by the end of the year, while still having the option of county insurance for another year.

When the commissioners approved the 2004 budget Dec. 23, the process included $10 million of spending reductions and nearly 50 positions. The approved levy means a $25-tax increase on a $180,000 home with a 12-percent valuation increase.

- Jane Lightbourn, staff writer

Power plant is on hold

In spring, Great River Energy announced plans to build a large gas-fired power plant west of Hastings near Highway 52. In August, the company decided to build two smaller plants that would serve the company in peak power times, such as the hottest and coldest days of the year.

In early December, GRE community relations director Kandace Olsen said that the company reviewed its long- and short-term needs, and decided to look for an alternative site for the power plants. She said that for the short term period -- between now and 2009 -- the company needs smaller plants and is looking for other sites. The company still has the option on the site near Highway 52 and believes that there will be a plant there someday, she said.

GRE is considering three sites for a possible plant, none of which is in Dakota County.

- Jane Lightbourn, staff writer