Levy renewal closer to fall ballot

ISD 834 Board Chairwoman Kathy Buchholz, left, speaks during discussion Thursday night of a resolution to renew the district’s expiring operating levy. Listening to Buchholz is Superintendent Corey Lunn. (Gazette staff photo by Erik Sandin)
ISD 834 Board Chairwoman Kathy Buchholz, left, speaks during discussion Thursday night of a resolution to renew the district’s expiring operating levy. Listening to Buchholz is Superintendent Corey Lunn. (Gazette staff photo by Erik Sandin)

Board decides to seek $1,495 per pupil over eight years

Voters in Independent School District 834 will be asked to renew an expiring operating levy this fall that boosts per pupil funding over eight years and would prevent $11 million in budget cuts.

ISD 834 directors unanimously passed a resolution Thursday to place one levy question on the November ballot. It asks voters to renew an operating levy that expires after the next school year at $1,495 per pupil and includes the state-allowed inflation factor for eight years. The expiring levy has $1,013 per pupil funding.

However, what the board passed at its business meeting might not be what ends up on the fall ballot. Board President Kathy Buchholz and Superintendent Corey Lunn both said the board could change items in the levy resolution when directors vote in August to formally place the question in the ballot. Any changes would be the result of actions by the state Legislature when lawmakers adjourn the 2013 session.

Board members considered the levy resolution so important that Director Amy Burback participated in the meeting via Skype from a Phoenix business meeting she was attending. Buchholz said allowing Burback to join the meeting through Skype was legal as long as Burback could see and hear all board members and the board could see and hear Burback.

Buchholz reminded directors and those at the meeting that voter rejection of the levy renewal triggers $11 million in budget cuts the board approved March 7.

“By doing this, the board has decided what to do if the levy doesn’t pass. If the levy passes, we will move ahead with our strategic plan,” she said.

Prior to board discussion of the levy resolution, retired ISD 834 Superintendent Dr. David Wettergren and retired Washington County Attorney Doug Johnson both used the open forum portion of the meeting to offer their support of the operating levy renewal.

Wettergren voiced concern over how “cracks” in the state’s education funding has caused budget woes for the district and perception issues among district residents.

“Why this perception that we have faltered? Serious and deep cuts have affected our district,” he said. “Many sacrifices have been made to save money. But ultimately, it’s the students who suffer. Reinvesting in our schools is the only way to continue our history of excellence.”

Johnson, who served on the district’s strategic planning committee, called education one of the best crime-prevention tools for law enforcement.

“As the ex-county attorney, I firmly believe the best anti-crime effort is education,” he said.

Johnson also said renewing the levy allows ISD 834 communities to compete with nearby communities for families buying homes in cities with excellent schools.

“District 834 is a leading (school) district in the county and the state. It will help our kids and protect our home values,” he said.

Board discussion of the levy resolution centered mainly on the per pupil dollar amount and length of the levy.

Director George Hoeppner supported an eight-year levy and $1,436 per pupil funding amount.

“It is, I believe, an appropriate amount,” he said.

Other directors argued for a 10-year levy, saying the longer term would keep the district from constantly seeking levies from voters.

“What I heard from the public is we don’t want to go through this as often as we do,” said Director Tom Lehmann.

“We have had four levy elections in seven years, which is unbelievable,” added Natalie Fedie. “Our administration has become experts in campaigning.”

Director Natasha Fleischman also supported a 10-year levy. “I would prefer a 10-year period, but I feel comfortable with eight years.

“My gut says 10 years is the way to go,” Burback said. “I could also support 8 years as Mr. Hoeppner suggests.

But a strong majority of the board favored asking for the $1,495 per pupil funding. It’s a dollar level that Lunn said is less than in the Mounds View, Roseville and White Bear Lake school districts. He added that even with a levy renewal, ISD 834 would be in the bottom one-third of Suburban East Schools in funding.

When Buchholz polled the board, a majority favored one ballot question seeking the $1,495 per pupil with the state-allowed inflation factor. Fedie, Fleischman and Director Mike Ptacek joined Hoeppner to get the eight-year levy term. Buchholz, Burback and Lehmann favored a 10-year levy.

Once the levy renewal terms were formally included in the resolution, the measure passed 7-0.

“This is an art, not a science,” Buchholz said about setting the levy renewal terms. “These are not perfect answers. There are pros and cons.

Contact Erik Sandin at erik.sandin@ecm-inc.com