Of the 847 Zumbrota and Mazeppa residents who completed the district’s recent survey, 68% believe they should pursue another bond referendum.

The district failed to pass a $49.95 million referendum in May and must now consider pursuing another vote in the coming months.

But what do residents want?

Susan Peterson presented the community survey findings at a special public meeting in the Zumbrota-Mazeppa Middle/High School auditorium Aug. 7.

Peterson works for School Perceptions, an independent educational research firm that specializes in surveys and what the copious amount of data means.

The presentation covered a variety of topics including where respondents get their information about the district from, city of residence, age range, and they hope the district will do if the referendum passed.

One of the most important aspects of the survey was gauging the community’s tax tolerance. The district considered a variety of referendum options before selecting the almost $50 million choice that failed in May.

Peterson pointed out that of the 847 residents — which equals about 24% of the total population, a solid mark in her opinion for respondents — supporting a $46.3 million option was the top choice with 21%.

There were $97 million and $67.2 million options that received the second and third highest percentage with 17% and 16%, respectively.

The survey results were broken down further than just all residents though. Staff residents, people who work for the school district, parent residents and non-parent residents were also represented.

Staff residents and parent residents supported a $46.3 million referendum above the other options. Non-parent residents supported a smaller bond referendum choice with 18%, but the $46.3 million option was close behind with 17%.

The $46.3 million referendum would address the district’s infrastructure and educational inadequacies at each school. Renovating and expanding the existing school sites would be the priority.

A $67.2 million referendum would close the Mazeppa school and build a 9-12 high school, with the existing Zumbrota site being re-purposed into a pre-K through eighth grade site.

A $97 million referendum would replace all of the schools with a consolidated, pre-K-12 grade school.

If the $97 million option would’ve been the most favorably to pursue by the board, the survey asked residents where they would like the school building to be located. 37% of all residents feel it should be located in the Zumbrota area, while 33% of all residents said they do not support any new building at all.

For residents who responded to the survey request, Peterson said it was fairly common, with most being 36-45 and 65 and older.

The district hopes to improve safety and security at each site, while also updating educational spaces, addressing infrastructure aging and adding support spaces.

In the survey results, many respondents responded favorably to the district’s decision to improve building safety and security and updating the infrastructure of each site. Adding classrooms, playgrounds, gyms or athletic fields did not receive favorable marks from respondents.

What does the future of Z-M look like?

After the data-heavy presentation by Peterson, community members raised questions to the school board and administration.

The school board will ultimately decide what referendum option to pursue. However, numerous board members gave their appreciation for the comments from community members and the data delivered to them by Peterson and School Perceptions. Peterson said survey findings are “highly predictive” for referendums all over the Midwest.

Skepticism from some community members was addressed during the public comment time of the meeting, questioning the district’s long-term plan and if renovating is truly the best choice.

The survey reflected that skepticism as well. For those who voted “no” on the previous referendum, residents' three top responses were that it was too expensive, lack of trust in the district’s planning process and did not support one or more of the proposed projects.

The district did receive an overall positive satisfaction percentage when asked by survey takers though, with 50% saying they are satisfied and 32% saying they are very satisfied.

One resident said, putting aside a cost impact, that some in the community don’t support sending students back and forth between the two towns.

“There [are] a lot of people in this community that don’t want their kids shipped 10 miles each way when they live right there in town,” the resident said. “They want local, elementary education.”

Another resident seconded that opinion, saying he’d like to see consolidation and worries that in the future they’ll need to continue adding on to two landlocked school sites. Having one campus with room for expansion will help the district down the road.

“I’m not in favor of renovating what we have,” the resident said. “I would rather find a site that we can establish ourselves on.”

Board Chair Jean Roth and Vice-Chair Jason Lohmann spoke out on these comments, saying they have to keep in mind they are serving two communities.

“We have two communities that we have to work with,” Lohmann said. “It’s not cut and dry that we have Zumbrota and we can build a new school here. We also have to look at Mazeppa.”

Roth said at some point, when the community has spoken, everyone has to “just suck it up” and move forward as a collective. Roth said she respects and appreciates all of the feedback they’ve received from people in both communities.

“I think it's absolutely critical that people are able and willing to voice their opinions tonight,” Roth said.

Superintendent Michael Harvey responded to a question asking what the district’s long-term goals are as they reflect on the referendum. Renovating and updating is a long-term goal and some day a new school site is possible.

“If you look at how other schools have done it in the area, when they’ve transitioned, you look at a Stewartville, a Byron or a [Kasson-Mantorville], many of those districts, they didn’t just jump out and say we’re building a new school,” Harvey said. “Years ago, they said we’re going to renovate and update our current schools. Which then built the energy and the enrollment and the people came to town, then they are able to build their new schools.”

One resident criticized the notion of an entirely new school and campus, saying parts of the school still look like when he was in school years ago.

“The community has [said] what they want to spend,” the resident said. “I don’t understand why a new school is even an option. I don’t understand that.”

One resident said she worries that 10 years in the future, more additions or another school site could put a serious burden on taxpayers. She said she wants to see the district have all of the resources they can to be successful, but senior citizens and people on a fixed income can’t endure high taxes.

“You have to think outside of what we need and want now versus what can happen down the road. I try to be optimistic,” the resident said. “I just don’t want to get to a point where people can’t afford to stay in their homes and stay in the district.”

Harvey again pointed to the survey results that said the majority of people want the district to pick a smaller option than the previous one on the ballot in May.

While people have their own opinions, Harvey said the plan needs to reflect what a majority of people in the community want.

The board didn’t make a decision on which referendum option they were going to pick after the two-hour meeting. They will discuss the referendum at their next school board meeting at 7 p.m., in the Zumbrota-Mazeppa Middle/High School media center on Aug. 12.

A copy of the presentation will be on the district's website.