Board sets levy request

Voters to decide operating increase to $1,536.77 per pupil

Now the selling to voters begins.

The Independent School District 834 Board will ask voters to renew and  increase an existing operating levy of $1,536.77 per pupil in November after approving the amount Thursday night.

The board also chose to opt-in to the $300-per-pupil school board authorized levy created by the legislature in the last session and opted out of the $424 per pupil location equity amount that would have been an unapproved voter levy. The $424 per pupil amount can be considered by the board again in 2015.

If approved by voters Nov. 5, owners of a median-priced home of $250,000 would pay taxes of $167.31 per year, or about $14 a month. The operating levy would be renewed for eight years.

“Though the number looks higher than our original proposal in April, it’s not. Funding is now determined on actual pupils attending our district and not the total number of student residents in our district,” said Superintendent Corey Lunn. “The school board decided to implement the school board-authorized $300 per pupil and not the $424 per pupil non-voter approved levy funding tools. We did this because with the $300 comes $600,000 more in state aid and the board and myself are not fans of non-voter approved levies.”

The board’s decision comes after two years of in-depth planning and working through levy dollar amount options that have changed recently due to legislative changes established in the last few months. The option selected by the board would renew a current levy expiring in 2014, provide funds of the district’s new Bridge to Excellence strategic plan and cover some estimated budget shortfalls the district faces regarding state-mandated programs. Budgets for school safety and security, bullying prevention and mental health support are also included in the referendum.
The school board originally set their referendum at $1,495 per pupil unit in April, but changes by the legislature that included how the number of district students are counted affected their board’s plans.

School district funding is now dependent on the number of students actually attending district schools instead of the total number of students living in a district. Though the official referendum amount appears higher than the original proposal, the same amount of money — $16.2 million — will be generated from this proposal, according to Lunn.

During the open forum portion of the meeting, Roland Buchman encouraged the board to delay their decision. He spoke in favor of a straight renewal of the levy with a five percent increase each year saying:

“It’s important to right the ship and then load the cargo. It may not get you where you need to get as quickly as you like but it’s less risky,” he said. He cited the fact that he believed inflation rates might be more than district officials expect.

The board respectfully disagreed with Buchman. District officials said a straight levy renewal would not cover implementing the Bridge to Excellence plan and that the funding shortfall incurred by state-mandated programs wouldn’t be covered, so items on the district’s cut list would have to be considered. District financial advisor Mike Hoheisel added that the highest inflation would likely be two percent.

There were supporters who spoke in favor of the levy decision during the open forum.

“My kids graduated in ‘96 and ‘99,” said Steve Johnson. “I am a senior living on a fixed income and when you do that you look at some parts of your life differently, but there are benefits to the levy. Paying more taxes isn’t on top of our bucket list, but at face value, what you gain from the levy is well-educated individuals in the community who give great customer service. That’s something you don’t learn sleeping, you learn it in school. In my demographic, property values are the biggest asset and nothing does more for property values than the quality of schools in the area. My property value is worth more today than when I bought it and that is why approval is needed on this levy amount.”

Board Chairwoman Kathy Buchholz said going forward with the current legislative changes means the district must do the best job they can to attract and retain students making levy passage important in November. Without voter approval, the district faces budget cuts of $10.1 million, which include slashing programs district-wide. All-day kindergarten would be exempt from that list since the legislature now funded all-day kindergarten programs starting in 2014.

“A Republican governor, Elmer Anderson, once said that communities must decide the expenses they want for their education,” said board member George Hoeppner. “My kids attended this school district back in the ‘70s and ‘80s and I realize that the kids in the district need different things than my children did years ago. To provide students with what they need, we need to have more money and it can’t be the same old same old going forward.”

Contact Avery Cropp at avery.cropp@ecm-inc.com

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