Vote Yes volunteers start door knocking

Delano School District residents are discovering volunteers from the Vote Yes and Yes Committee knocking on their doors to provide information about the Nov. 6 operating levy referendum — something that did not happen prior to last year’s failed operating levy referendum.

Jennifer Kazin, of Vote Yes and Yes, joined three other speakers at the Tuesday, Sept. 18, Delano City Council meeting in providing information about the Nov. 6 operating levy referendum for Delano Public Schools. The other speakers were School Superintendent Matt Schoen, School Board member Lisa Seguin, and Delano City Administrator Phil Kern.

Kazin said her committee looked at why last year’s operating levy referendum failed by just 159 votes. Many people who favored the operating levy question did not show up at the polls because they thought voters would approve the levy. Other voters said no to the question because they were confused. Some thought that money that would have been raised per pupil ($990) was the amount of a proposed tax increase on their property. The actual tax impact was $248 annually on a $200,000 home.

This year Vote Yes and Yes decided to focus its efforts on door knocking by volunteers to talk with voters who might not have been reached by last year’s educational efforts, Kazin said. Some 140 volunteers are involved. So far, many residents are saying thanks for explaining referendum questions and potential tax impact on homeowners.

Superintendent Schoen explained the tax impact of the two referendum questions.

The first question asks voters to renew the current operating levy, which will expire in June 2013. Approval of this question would have no tax impact. Property taxes would stay the same for this 10-year levy. Proceeds would be $426.86 per pupil, the same as the previous 10-year levy.

The second question asks voters to increase the levy by $325 per student. Voters must approve the first question before the second question can be approved. Schoen said the tax impact for the average Delano home (valued at $220,000 for tax purposes) would be $12 a month. A property owner would pay $72 per $100,000 of taxable property value per year.

So Vote Yes and Yes volunteers are explaining that a $144 per year tax increase for a $220,000 home resulting from approval of question number two is not the same as proceeds of $325 per student in terms of what property owners would pay.

Schoen said Delano Schools now are in a “critical financial situation.” The current operating levy has provided $1.2 million per year. If voters do not renew this levy, the district will have no operating levy money, and $1.2 million of revenue will be gone.

School Board member Seguin said, “We really need both questions to pass, if we want to maintain where we are.”

She noted that Delano Public Schools already has been in deficit spending for two years. Following the failed 2011 levy referendum, the School Board cut spending and raised fees that combined to reduce the budget deficit by $750,000. But the board “did not have the stomach to put the school district in the black,” she said.

This year, “if both questions fail, we are in dire straits,” Seguin said. Average class sizes could go as high as 33 students. A potential of 18 jobs would be eliminated. Electives such as music, art and foreign languages would be cut. Delano Middle School (DMS) activities would be moved to Delano Community Education, with parents paying the full cost.

If voters were to approve question one, but not question two, results would be much the same as if both questions fail to pass. The only difference would be potential elimination of 10 jobs instead of 18, Seguin said.

The School Board would immediately start budget cuts in the event of failure of one or both levy referendum questions, she said. If both questions are approved, no jobs would be eliminated, average class size would remain at 25, no programs would be cut and no changes would be made to DMS activities and activity fees.

Seguin added that average class size of 25 is “not where we want to be. This is where we ended up after the last referendum failed.”

She noted that cost per pupil at Delano Schools is second lowest compared with neighboring school districts. Delano Schools has pride in doing a lot with little money, but some people are questioning “whether this is a good thing or not.” Delano students will be going on to school with students from neighboring school districts and competing for spots in college student bodies and for jobs.

People have told Seguin that Delano Schools have gotten great results with the money it has. Student test scores are excellent. “Why can’t we make that last a bit longer?” Seguin added.

She answers, “We’ve done what we can with what we’ve got.” The operating levy will expire in 2013, and Delano Schools is trying to make up for 10 years of inadequate state funding.

“We’ve squeezed a lot out of our 10 year levy,” Seguin said. “Now it’s time to make a new investment.”

Delano Administrator Phil Kern summed up research on how quality of public schools affects local economies. Before the recession, people were buying homes and businesses and investing almost everywhere. Recently, homebuyers and businesses are putting their money in select areas. Quality of local schools is an indicator of where economic growth is most likely to occur.

For example, city assessors in Maple Grove and Plymouth have said home sales are up in portions of their cities that are in the Wayzata School District, Kern said. Residents are migrating there from the Osseo School District and other school districts. While 10 percent of Maple Grove is located in the Wayzata School District, 70 percent of recent new home construction has taken place there.

So far Delano has a positive image because of quality of Delano schools and city services, he said. He asked builder Home Plus why people were building homes in Delano. Six of seven new homeowners in the past 12 months said the strong school district was the reason they were locating in the area.

Also, in 2011, Delano experienced just under $10 million in investment in commercial and industrial construction — the largest private sector investment in Delano history, Kern said. This was significantly more than in 2007, when private investment was just under $2 million in Delano.

“People are choosing Delano for investment over some of our neighboring areas,” Kern said, probably because of the school district and a number of other things. The community and the school district “have earned a competitive advantage.”

The challenge is that the State funding formula for public schools rewards property wealthy school districts, and Delano is not one of them, he said. This challenge could “creep up over time” and affect not also Delano Schools, but also Delano’s economy.