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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.

Caitlin Burgess (Editor) June 19, 2012 at 05:45 PM
I wouldn't speculate that people's interests or their significant others dealings with the schools are the definitive reasons they voted in one way or the other. By that token, Nollenberger's decision would be a based on the fact that he has children in the schools. No doubt he was thinking of them and other parents when he voted. But he also believed it was simply unnecessary given the games aren't played at night and that the district didn't have the money upfront to do it. So I personally wouldn't point fingers at the board members - whether they voted for or against - for making decisions for personal reasons. Again, no doubt they play a role, but I think the bigger issue is the $200,000 and what its best use is.
Kirsten June 19, 2012 at 05:50 PM
That's true, Caitlin. I apologize for my comment. The issue just makes me a little upset. Due to the failed referendum, class sizes for kindergarten through 2nd grade classes is expected to be, on average, 29.5 to 30.5 kids. That is too high. I know this because I asked one of the elem. principals personally. This was last March, so maybe those numbers have changed. But $200K could buy more teachers, or at least teacher aids to help out in the huge kindergarten classes.
Caitlin Burgess (Editor) June 19, 2012 at 05:57 PM
I totally understand Kirsten. And I wasn't trying to scold, just offering another thing to think about. As far as class sizes go, I was told that fifth grade classes at RDLS will be at 31 - which I agree is high. I have most definitely been thinking about the referendum. The school board recently said it was in the process of trying to decide to simply renew the expiring one, or increasing. I have no doubt that this decision will be brought up by voters when we get closer to November.
Joyce K June 19, 2012 at 06:03 PM
The board did WHAT?!?! This seems more than a slap in the face to the community. Telling parents all the students are not important---just those who CHOOSE to play baseball!
Kirsten June 19, 2012 at 06:11 PM
Ok. Now I just read an explanation that Deb Etienne made on the facebook group page that Caitlin mentioned above. Deb explains where the money is coming from for the lights, and that it's not taking money away from classrooms. It makes sense. Now I feel better. I guess I need to get all my facts before I get upset about something! :)
Kevin Maleck June 19, 2012 at 06:26 PM
Deb's post is misleading. According to an email from Dr. Slotterback: "Could the money used on the lights be used for teachers. Yes. The money for the lights is being supported by the rental of the football field. The football field is more than paying for itself. Some of the extra money generated by the football field is being directed towards paying for the lights. It could be directed for anything the district buys- electricity to teachers."
Steve Klopp June 19, 2012 at 06:29 PM
Hi Caitlin, I would like to thank David Lamberger, Sandy Belkengren, Deb Etienne and John Ashmead for having a Vision for Richfield High School that includes a new baseball field with lights. To have one of the best "on campus" ball fields in the State is a feather in the cap for Richfield. I think we need to educate the public, Nollenberger voted against putting turf on the football/soccer field, saying Superintendent Bob Slotterback and Athletic Director Todd Olson could not put a business plan together to pay for turf replacement. Do not underestimate these two gentlemen with over 30 years experience in teaching and administration for each of them. For the record, the turf is generating over $70,000 annually, double the replacement projections. The ball field improvement project was started with a grant from the Hennepin Youth Sports Program for $275,000. In addition, Bob Slotterback and Todd Olson have forged a strong relationship with Richfield/Bloomington Credit Union who is donating $40,000 for a scoreboard. The lights will be funded through a 7 year lease to buy program through the lighting company from excess revenue from the turf field. A creative way to enhance our facilities without tax payer money. For Nollenberger to say this is a lights versus teachers & programs is disingenuous. If you get a chance, drive by the football/soccer field and "see the vision". Its for the kids of Richfield. Sincerely, Steve Klopp former t-ball coach
Kevin Maleck June 19, 2012 at 06:36 PM
I believe one of those two gentlemen whom we should not underestimate - Bob Slotterback - recommended AGAINST the lights.
Kevin Maleck June 19, 2012 at 06:41 PM
Revenue from the fields IS taxpayer money. The mentality that we are somehow 'playing with the house's money' is foolish. It's not free money. It is money earned from a taxpayer investment and can be used however the district decides is the most prudent.
Kevin Maleck June 19, 2012 at 07:28 PM
I know two people you can vote for next year who have kids in the district...
Scott Stone June 19, 2012 at 10:01 PM
When my children went to Sheridan Hills -- which at that time was K-2 and a Blue Ribbon School. it had class sizes of 24. Now it is K-5 and would not be able to win Blue Ribbon for anything.
Scott Stone June 19, 2012 at 10:08 PM
One person pointed out that the cost of renting the field now is much to high for most organizations to afford. $400 compared to Edina's $70. The field with lights is not a profit center. If the lights do happen and the field is rented, it takes revenue from the other fields in the area, to Richfield City Parks. I should point out that the School District is not a for profit business whose purpose is to generate revenue. Money for sports could be used for Academics. Parents can and do support the cost of sports for their children already, that should not be a school function. Their purpose should be preparing our students for college, not for watching sports.
Scott Stone June 19, 2012 at 10:10 PM
The schools should not be in the business of generating revenue. That is competing with business and taking money from the City.
Jennifer Behnke June 19, 2012 at 11:20 PM
Kirsten, some of us disagree with Deb Etienne's facts. Keep asking around. She says the money was "capital funds," but Dr. Slotterback and Todd Nollenberger both say the money was "operating funds" that can be used for classrooms and learning, not just for building projects, as Deb Etienne claims.
Kari Toensing June 20, 2012 at 12:51 AM
In regards to the discussion about whether funds generated by the football field are considered capital funds or operating funds,in an email Dr. Slotteback made it very clear that they are operating funds and can be spent on anything in the district, including classroom. If anyone would like to verify that, his number is (612) 798 -6011. "1. Could the money used on the lights be used for teachers. Yes. The money for the lights is being supported by the rental of the football field. The football field is more than paying for itself. Some of the extra money generated by the football field is being directed towards paying for the lights. It could be directed for anything the district buys- electricity to teachers." Therefore, Deb Etienne is wrong when she says that monies generated from the field are capital funds. Per Dr. Slotterback, those monies could be used in the classroom. In my opinion, the four board members who voted in favor of the lights (Sandy Belkengren, David Lamberger, Deb Etienne and John Ashmead) are indeed prioritizing the installation of baseball lights (which we have lived without for 50 years) over spending money in the classroom.
Kirsten June 20, 2012 at 03:23 AM
Good info to know, Kari. Thank you.
Caitlin Burgess (Editor) June 20, 2012 at 03:46 PM
Hi all, to settle any uncertainty about what type of dollars are being used for the lights project, at the suggestion of one of our readers, I contacted the district business manager, Michael Schwartz. He confirmed that any rents are deemed operating (or general fund) dollars that can be used for anything. Here was his full response: Construction projects are "usually" paid for with capital dollars. The district receives a certain portion of their state aid as dedicated capital funds. Operating or general fund dollars can be used for normal district operations but can also be used for construction or equipment purchases. The board authorization is to use a portion of rental income generated from the football field rental which is estimated at this time to be in the neighborhood of $94,000 for this summer usage less approximately $10,000 for district cost (Net $84,000) to pay a lease purchase agreement for installing lights and a new scoreboard at the baseball field. The school board established that any rental income from the football field would be used to replace the field at the end of its useful life. The estimate of rental income from the field was estimated at somewhere between $30 - 50,000. Rental income is designated as operating or general fund money. As stated above, this money can be used on facilities as well as for the operation of the district. I hope this helps. I'm going to check in with Deb Etienne as well, but she's on vacation now.
Teresa Kruse June 20, 2012 at 04:36 PM
Most disconcerting about this issue is the School Board Members have been contacted by numerous residents and an overwhelming theme to the responses have been that there was no "passion and concern" over the project prior to the vote. My question is: how would the residents of Richfield have known what was taking place? April 23, 2012 School Board Meeting Minutes state the District had “no revenue stream”; the budget was “very tight with no resources”; and that no Board Member made a motion to approve the project. During his monthly Parent Advisory Committee (SPAC) meeting, Dr. Slotterback explained the baseball field project and noted that lighting would not be included. There was no agenda item or mention of the lighting project in the May 21, 2012 meeting minutes. What matters now is that the residents of Richfield have voiced concerns about this project and have respectfully requested a special session for the Board to reconsider their decision.
Jennifer Behnke June 20, 2012 at 10:22 PM
My vision for Richfield is that all students gain a year of learning during each year of their schooling. My vision relies upon schools and teachers having every resource they need to make learning happen. I've seen the football field. It's really nice, but it isn't my vision.
tim pollis June 21, 2012 at 04:14 AM
I have 2 kids in the district. This is wasteful spending in the face of other needs. It inspires no confidence in the Board’s ability to prioritize spending your money. Unlike the turf field, lighting the baseball field has at best a token revenue stream and even lower need. RHS’s conference starts nearly all home games at 415PM. In other metro conferences, 70% of home games start before 6PM. Only Chanhassen and Minnetonka play on school controlled facilities with lights. Others use city fields. If later starts are a “right” for fans, start games at 530PM at RHS or use Donaldson’s lights (AHA had only 4 night games). It is great that the turf field has been successful. Instead of using that revenue to address 3 of 4 elementary schools on the state’s “Priority”/“Focus” list, or to address that the district’s existing priority list for facility needs (no mention of baseball), the majority of this Board wants lights for 6 games a year. I love all the sports in town and work hard to support them. In particular, I have appreciated the RHS baseball team’s support of youth ball in town. That does not cloud my judgment from seeing this as willfully wasteful. I hope the Board reconsiders this decision. Last fall, a referendum somehow failed in an election where 14/15 candidates for Board supported it. What does this decision say to 2012 referendum voters who have a say in how much money they give the Board to work with?
Teresa Kruse June 21, 2012 at 07:36 PM
As Tim mentioned, it is extremely important for our School Board members to be fiscally responsible with the funds entrusted to them. It needs to be understood spending funds in a manner that appears reckless can negatively impact the referendum this fall. The following comments were taken directly from the February 23, 2012 school board meeting minutes: "Member Nollenberger wanted the public to be aware that we cut $875,000 out of next years budget that night, and by doing so left the District a very slim margin. If the levy next fall is not renewed, the District will lose $301 per student or an additional $1.2 million dollars per year." "Member Easterwood said he too was uncomfortable with the thinness of our fund balance as it could put us in a precarious position. To not successfully renew this levy would be dramatic." "Member Lamberger said if we have to reduce our budget by an additional $1.5 million you’re looking at an increase in class size of five (5) or six (6) students." The decision to add lights has the potential to put passing the referendum this fall in jeopardy. The community needs to understand how paying for these lights is good for Richfield and how it is good for the referendum.
Joy Jurewicz June 21, 2012 at 09:30 PM
Maybe some of the board members need to review the mission statement of the Richfield Public Schools. "The Mission of the Richfield Public Schools is to prepare all learners for success in a changing world by developing their knowledge and abilities within a climate of mutual trust and respect." It even goes on to say, "the education and welfare of our students will always be our first and best concern." Clearly, that is not the case with the lights. Please look to the Patch Articles on the elementary schools failing reports - http://richfield.patch.com/articles/sheridan-hills-becomes-priority-school-under-new-accountibility-system
Jodi Olson June 22, 2012 at 02:15 AM
I hope that everyone who is disagreeing with this, myself included, takes the time to let all the school board members know. I also hope they request that the school board hold a special session to reconsider this decision. I was told that John Ashmead is for a special session- keep putting the pressure on Richfield and help demand that the school board WE voted in listens to our voices. You can find all of their email address on the schools website.
Kari Toensing June 22, 2012 at 03:01 AM
Jodi, great idea for people to take the time and contact the board members directly. Be aware that David Lamberger's email is not working, so you will need to call him directly in order to have your voice heard.
Kevin Maleck June 22, 2012 at 06:22 AM
Support school levies but hold the district accountable The dialog above, over on The Sun Current and in the community are great examples of why levies are a good vehicle for funding our schools. Local funding through property tax increases awareness and accountability. When we send our hard earned money to the federal or state government hoping that at least some comes back to our schools after passing through several hands, we tend not to watch it as closely. Spending wisely is at the forefront of our decision making BECAUSE we have a cycle where we have to go to the tax payers and ask for more money or to renew, knowing that we are constantly under the microscope. That is, it SHOULD be at the forefront. Some of our board members seem to have neglected that aspect and approved spending with lack of forethought or utter disregard of the consequences. Only one (John Ashmead) has admitted to any culpability in neglecting that aspect when voting yes to the lights and for that he is to be commended. One could venture that the enormous public outcry has heightened their (the board members) sensitivity. I know many citizens who will be keeping a closer eye on the board in the future (fool me once...).
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 (Editor) 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 (Editor) 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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