BY SUSAN VAN CLEAF
Voters in School District No. 879 will find two operating levy questions on their ballots during the Tuesday, Nov. 6 General Election – one of which, if approved, would not increase property taxes.
The Delano School Board Monday, June 25, voted to place on the ballot Question No. 1 that will ask voters to authorize renewal of the $426 per pupil operating levy that is set to expire in June 2013. Voters who say "yes" to this question would not be voting for a tax increase because they already have been paying for an operating levy of this same size for the past 10 years.
If district voters were to approve Question No. 2, they would be voting for a property tax increase. This question asks voters for an additional $325 per pupil operating levy money. Passage of Question No. 2 will be contingent upon passage of Question No. 1.
If passed, both operating levies would be in effect for 10 years. The amount of the $325 levy would increase each year by the rate of inflation, but this would not happen with the $426 levy extension. The two levies would go into effect for taxes payable in 2013.
Last November Delano Schools asked voters to authorize replacement of the $426 per pupil levy with a new levy of $990 per pupil. School officials said the new levy was needed to maintain last year’s class sizes, courses and fees. The levy referendum failed by 159 votes.
In the wake of the failed referendum, the School Board set a goal of cutting the school district budget by $800,000 and proceeded to make cuts and seek additional revenue.
Among other things, one school bus route fell victim to budget cuts. At the June 25 meeting, the board received a letter from Kindergarten through sixth grade teachers expressing their disappointment in the decision to cut classroom sections. And in May, the School Board decided to charge a fee for College in the Schools classes. These were just a few of the board’s decisions resulting from the failed levy referendum.
Dr. John Sweet, retiring superintendent of schools, explained how the school district came up with amounts for the two operating levy questions that will be on the ballot. Delano Schools hired Springsted Inc. to do a scientific survey of District 879 voters. They were asked if they were willing to approve a property tax increase, and if so, by how much.
Sixty-one percent of survey respondents said they would approve a levy increase of $102 per year on a $200,000 home – resulting in an additional $225 per pupil. Responding to a second question, 50.3 percent said they would approve a levy increase of $147 per year on a $200,000 home – resulting in an additional $325 per pupil. Finally, 37 percent of respondents said they would approve an increase of $192 per year on a $200,000 home – resulting in an additional $425 per pupil.
After digesting the survey results, District 879 officials decided to draft the two operating levy questions to create a clear and understandable ballot that would give the district financial stability. The additional $325 per pupil would be used to keep class sizes under control but they would be at a higher level than in previous years,
District residents spoke up from the audience about the upcoming levy referendum. Both Becky Schaust and Barb Mitchell said voters need to know specifically what would be cut from the budget, if the levy questions were to fail.
Media specialist Gwen Egly, of Delano Middle School, said she wanted the public to know that the School Board and administration are incredibly frugal. Partners In Education groups composed of teachers and parents have provided students and staff with progressive technology and booster and music groups have provided athletics and activities with funding to help with basic costs. She emphasized that, if there are any frills, they are not provided from district funds.
SCHOOL FUNDING POLICY
Mary Cecconi, of Parents United, provided a prelude to the operating levy discussion with her presentation on public school funding policies and politics. She displayed a chart from the Minnesota Department of Education showing that schools have less money now than they did in 2003, when accounting for inflation. The legislature added $50 in state funding for each year in the current biennium. Even with that extra $50 per year, the state would need to give schools $532 more in the funding formula to give them the buying power they had in 2003.
Cecconi said that when operating levies were first started, they were used for special things. Now they are being used for basic operating costs. With decreased state funding for schools, funding of costs has moved from the state to local levies.
She commented that if schools are to be levy dependent, then taxpayers should have a lower tax burden at the state level.
In related business, the School Board passed a budget for the 2012-13 school year that includes a projected general fund deficit of $301,969. The deficit is expected to be covered by reserves. Estimated expenditures are $19,099,617 and estimated revenues are $18,707,648. The general fund gets 86 percent of its revenues from the state, nine percent from local property taxes, one percent from federal sources and four percent from other local and county sources.
Delano Public Schools also has budgets for food service, capital outlay, community service, a trust fund and a debt service fund. In 2012-13 the school district is estimating that debt service will cost $2,338,203. Delano Schools has a total bond debt of $22,235,000 that was incurred for additions to buildings in 2000, facility improvement and energy savings projects in 2008 and a land purchase in 2008.
Supt. Sweet said that some employee contracts are not yet settled. These settlements could increase the deficit.