Rochester Public Schools intends to try for another referendum next year, Superintendent Kent Pekel says

A man listens during a meeting.
Superintendent Kent Pekel listens during a Rochester Public Schools board meeting in Rochester, Minn.
Evan Frost | MPR News 2021

By Jordan Shearer, Post Bulletin

Following the failure of a proposed technology levy last week, Rochester Public Schools Superintendent Kent Pekel has announced his intent to seek another referendum next year, as well as ask the Rochester School Board to renew the district's existing operating levy that would otherwise expire in 2025.

Pekel released his remarks in a statement Tuesday, reflecting on the district's growing financial challenges amid a myriad of factors. He then read his statement Tuesday evening during the Rochester School Board meeting.

"My main message is this," Pekel wrote in the statement, "if Rochester wants to provide all its young people with the caliber of education that will enable them to succeed in the economy and in society in which they will live their lives, additional funding for our school district is urgent and essential."

Pekel's statement said the district will undertake further research before determining how much it will ask the community to approve in the referendum next year.

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Multiple people commented on the failed referendum during a school board meeting Tuesday, exactly one week after voters went to the ballot.

One of them, Paula Craigo, spoke about the fact that only a little over a quarter of registered voters actually went to the poles.

“I think a lot of people who wanted it to pass assumed it would pass without their vote,” Craigo told the school board. “I trust you to walk us through this and get us to the other side.”

Vince Wagner, president of the city’s teachers union, the Rochester Education Association, also spoke about the relatively low turnout.

“We did our best to get the vote out, we just need to do better next time,” Wagner told the Post Bulletin. “We have to have a higher turnout. I truly believe the people of Rochester care about education.”

Pekel also indicated his intent to ask the school board to renew the district's existing operating levy. In recent conversations, the superintendent and the school board never discussed at length what they would do with the existing operating levy. Instead, Pekel said he prefer to wait to see what happened with voters' reaction to the proposed tech levy.

The Minnesota Legislature this year gave school districts the authority to renew an existing operating levy one time without having to ask voters. If RPS doesn't renew the existing levy, it would lose $17 million a year in revenue, further compounding the financial cuts that it has made over the past two years.

"I am confident that the defeat of the referendum last week was not the end of a conversation with our community about its support for education," Pekel wrote. "It was the beginning."

Read the superintendent's full message at the Post Bulletin.