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UPDATED: Nollenberger Says School Board Chose Field Lights Over Funding Classrooms

A majority of school board members voted to install lights with a $200,000 price tag on the high school baseball field.

Last Update: 10:45 a.m. on June 25, 2012

After a resolution was killed in late Spring 2012, the Richfield School Board revisited installing lights as part of the last week.

In a 4-2 vote, the board passed the measure, allocating $200,000 more to the project, using rental dollars from the new turf field as funding. Board members and John Easterwood were against the measure.

Nollenberger told Richfield Patch that installing lights was fiscally irresponsible, noting that class sizes are increasing next year, layoff notices were just sent to some teachers and, simply, night games are rarely played.

“We try to prioritize capital projects,” he said. “And there is a long list of things the district is deferring because we don’t have the money available.  … The administration never asked the board to consider field lights. This is a strictly, board member driven proposition.”

The district received a grant from the Hennepin Youth Sports Program to make improvements to the field in December 2011. The project went out for bid and many upgrades were proposed, including lights. According to Nollenberger, the school went through the proposal and decided what it could afford to do.  Two months ago, that didn’t include lights, however, Board Clerk David Lamberger asked that it be reconsidered and put on the June 11 agenda.

Increasing Class Sizes Cause Concern

Nollenberger, the only board member to currently have children attending school in the district, said class sizes are a major concern for parents.

“In all honesty, [the project] isn’t a lot of money,” Nollenberger said. “Even if the dollars aren’t huge, it’s a slap in the face to parents that the board would do something that is not a necessity nor a want.”

Since news of the measure broke, one Facebook group, Richfield Dual Language School (RDLS) Parents, Friends and Family, has called for its members to write letters to school board members, expressing their concerns.

“Choosing Lights Over Classrooms’

According to Nollenberger, there are two types of funds: capital funds and operating funds.

Capital dollars go to building and improvement projects such as replacing a roof and paying for athletic facility improvements. Operating dollars cover teacher’s salaries, maintenance costs and so on.

The revenues that are generated from field rental would fall into the operating fund, Nollenberger said. And while operating dollars can be used for anything, he said the board’s decision to use those funds to pay for the lights was consciously taking money that could be used in the classroom and spending it elsewhere.

“Even though [the funds] are being generated by the field turf, they are operating funds,” he said. “I made it clear [that Monday] that the board was making a choice between spending money on the field or in the classrooms. … And *[over the past couple months, we've been sending] out lay-off notices.”

*However, first-term Board Member acknowledged the money could be used in the classrooms, she argued the decision was most definitely not a choice over spending money there.

She said the board originally planned to use the rental income to pay for the upkeep of the field, expecting to make about $50,000 a year. However, the board discovered that the field would generate double that figure this year alone.

“I think that figure came in higher than anyone expected,” Etienne said. “We also have a firm, [multi-year] commitment from a vendor. … We feel pretty confident that we have a steady stream of money coming in [to install the lights] and still pay for the upkeep of the turf field.”

“This did not come down to a vote for teachers or lights,” she added. “We talked about this at three different meetings. Never did anyone say, ‘We need another teacher at [Richfield Dual Language School] or we need more paper at Richfield S.T.E.M.’”

Is the Decision Final?

According to Nollenberger, there is a chance the board could reverse the decision. However, time is an issue. The work will likely start this summer.

“Once they start putting lights up, you’re past the point of no return,” he said.

The only way this project would be reconsidered is if the board chair (Sandy Belkengren), the board clerk (Lamberger) or three board members (at least one being from the original four who voted in favor of the measure) called for a special session.

Richfield Patch will update readers if more information becomes available.

Editor's Note: We made a clarification as to when layoff notices have been sent out. In addition, we made a correction as to Deb Etienne's comments regarding the project funding coming from the capital fund versus the operating fund.

Kevin Maleck June 22, 2012 at 06:22 AM
Support school levies but hold the district accountable (cont.) All that said, the district will be going to referendum again this year and every few years, as always, and will be asking for renewals or changes. That cycle is a great way to keep them honest. It is important to properly fund our schools. A good school system is not only important for the kids, it's important for community spirit and it's important for our pockets. When people want to move to Richfield, there is competitive pressure and our property values rise. This particular expense, while symptomatic of occasional careless spending, is relatively small peanuts. We, the public, will be watching those peanuts more closely and taxpayers can rest assured that their hard earned tax dollars will be spent with the utmost respect and a focus on performance. When levies come around, take time to consider them as an investment in the kids, as an investment in the community and as an investment in your net worth. When elections come around, take time to hold the candidates responsible for their decisions - it keeps everyone on their toes.
Caitlin Burgess June 25, 2012 at 03:34 PM
As I stated above, I contacted Deb Etienne again regarding her comment that the field lights would be paid for by capital funds, She said she did in fact understand the difference between capital and operating funds. Here's her response: WOW, there has been a lot of activity on this issue while I was out of the country. ... There must have been some misunderstanding. I never said (or meant to say) that the money for the lights was capital money. If I said it incorrectly, I apologize. I do understand the difference between the 2 buckets of money. I've also updated the article above.
Dan Jegtvig June 26, 2012 at 05:07 PM
I wish to clarify some misinformation being circulated about the proposal to install lights at the high school baseball field. The suggestion by project opponents that the installation of lights will come at the expense of teachers and classroom size is pure fallacy. In truth, no funds already earmarked for the general operating budget will be touched. The lights project will cost $37,000 per year for seven years. The funds will be drawn from the revenue created by rental of the football field; a scenario which would NOT have been possible had the board not boldly voted to install artificial turf on the field last year. Like the turf project, the lights project will not only enhance the baseball field aesthetically, but create a revenue stream from rentals. This project as been on the agenda since the April 23 board meeting. It has since been discussed at two additional board meetings and a dedicated open facilities study session. This proposal at no time flew under the radar, nor did board members Nollenberger or Easterwood raise any concerns or objections along the way. Academics will always be a top priority. However, when there is an opportunity to enhance the school's facilities to a point where other communities come to Richfield and spend their money for their use, I am going to support it. It is time for everyone to join together in exercising common sense and form their conclusions on fact, not half-truths or innuendo. Dan Jegtvig
Caitlin Burgess June 26, 2012 at 06:04 PM
Hi all. A special session was just called. Here are the details: http://patch.com/A-v6xT
tim pollis June 26, 2012 at 06:41 PM
Dan, The revenue is general and can be spent on ANYTHING. The budget was set and subsequently cut down in February, before lights were discussed. Choosing to spend it on lights instead of items that were cut in February (or anything else) is choosing lights over all those other possible areas: asst coaches, teachers, paper, you name it. This isn't complicated. I wouldn't say it is specifically "lights over teachers" but to deny it is "lights over everything else that was cut" is being willfully obtuse. Revenue stream for the baseball field? Love to see the plan. Any local organization for kids can rent Donaldson from the city for $7 per kid per year. Per year! For adults, it is about $125 a night. For a tournament, it might be $300 for the weekend. Unlike the turf which has many sports that could use it, we are looking at baseball only at the baseball field. It would generate...not a lot. Please correct me and show me the demand. We are competing with other fields on baseball (unlike the turf field). Again, keep in mind that the local youth groups can use the city fields for a fixed fee of $7/kid for the year if you suggest that's a source of big revenue. The field was discussed and not voted on april 23rd. It did not appear on the agenda for either May meeting. The May 7th meeting minutes are not online. At the May 21st meeting Mr Lamberger requested it being put on the agenda for June 11th. It seemed dead after April to most.

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