Survey gives encouraging levy picture

Results indicate district residents support referendum

SAISD 834 logoThis year appears to be favorable to ask Independent School District 834 residents to consider renewing the district’s operating levy, school board members learned at their meeting Thursday night.

Officials from Decision Resources Ltd., the company that Independent School District 834 uses to take a pulse of the community when operating levies are up for consideration, advised that the current environment is favorable to ask residents for an operating levy referendum at Thursday night’s board meeting.

Dr. Bill Morris of Decision Resources Ltd. said a survey conducted of more than 500 random households and homes with school-age children in the district indicates support for renewing the operating levy. The survey’s sample error stands at plus or minus 5 percent for residents surveyed and 6.3 percent in the case of parents.

“There is a reservoir of good will here that has happened over time. People trust the district and talked about creating a future of excellence,” Morris said. “(A referendum) is never going to be a walk in the woods and it will require quite an effort but there are people out there who are willing to listen and others who are willing to work to get it passed. You’ve done good and this would be a very good year to get the proposition on the ballot.”

Feedback shared by Morris revealed that most residents agreed the school district is doing an overall good job and an operating levy renewal would be something they would support. But Morris said about a quarter of respondents strongly opposed renewing any operating levy. Most of the opposition are over age 55 or empty nesters without ties to the district, according to Morris.

Serious issues cited by survey respondents include poor spending at 15 percent, large class sizes and budget cuts at 8 percent and levy failures at 5 percent, while lack of funding was the major concern at 30 percent. Morris added that funding stability was important to respondents.

“This is what we call a mega issue,” he said regarding the lack of funding statistic. “There is a big enough group of people that could be galvanized around it (the levy campaign) and this could easily be a core problem, but it can also be an advantage if a referendum is proposed.”

Regarding what the operating levy renewal amount should be, Morris and district officials asked survey respondents about funding a half-cap or three-quarters of the maximum funding cap per pupil allotted by the state. The total state-alloted amount, which changed since the survey was conducted, is $1,671 per pupil.

The district currently gets $1,012 per pupil or about $11 million, about 20 percent of the district’s general operating fund. That $11 million would be cut from the district across the board if the operating levy is not renewed in November. The district currently faces $4 to $6 million in budget cuts if the current operating levy is renewed.

When asked about this levy option, Morris said 71 percent of respondents supported it while a vocal 22 percent minority opposed it and 8 percent were unsure or refused to answer.

The second and third options shared with participants included a tax increase, which Morris said hasn’t occurred in Stillwater since 2002.

Option two, the half-cap funding option, stands at $1,333 per pupil. It would provide an additional $3.5 million to the district each year. This option would cost the owner of a $200,000 home a total monthly property tax increase of $8.27 or about $99 a year. Sixty-nine percent of respondents supported this while 26 percent opposed it, and 4 percent refused to answer or were unsure.

Option three, the three-quarter funding cap option, would stand at $1,494 per pupil. It would give the district $4 million more per year. This option would cost the owner of $200,000 home a total monthly property tax increase of $12.41 or $149. Morris said 68 percent supported this option while 26 percent opposed it and 6 percent were unsure or refused to respond.

“The key here is that with these options the supporters didn’t drop below 50 percent which is the danger zone when it comes to things like these.” he said.

The new strategic plan that the district hopes to implement if the levy renewal passes would cost $14.6 million. A bond referendum for proposed school security measures is also being considered for the November ballot. It would cost $3 million and could be rolled into the ballot question as Morris encouraged the board to ask one question and put it all on the table.

“Last time we went through this I took the position of following my heart versus what (Morris) had presented. I went for three questions and he told us three questions was not the right thing to do,” said board member Tom Lehmann. “I’m not interested in solely a renewal. I believe doing that would be disingenuous to the public since there is an additional 4 to 6 million that will have to be cut in the fall even if the levy passes. A renewal does not bring stability to our funding problem. I think you have to go for a higher amount to accomplish what we want to do. I think we should also include an inflationary factor that eliminates the fluctuation that the community doesn’t want. So I say we renew it and ask for a higher amount over a longer time.”

Other school board members agreed with Lehmann, although board member George Hoeppner voiced concern about not considering the poorer members of the community.

“One question that is prudent for us to answer is the inflation factor. We need to think about the limitations that some members of our community have to make sure that we can have all our citizens support a renewal,” he said.  “It’s easy to take a look at three-quarters, half, or all of the cap. The members of the board might be well off, but in terms of how much we want to go for — though I know we’ll still be getting less than our neighbors — I want to think on it before we decide on this.”
The board will decide on the operating levy amount at its April 11 meeting.