Osseo School Board considers asking for levies again

Technology levy question is likely but operating levy question is uncertain

Most members of the Osseo School Board favor once again asking voters to approve both an operating levy and a tech levy this November.

District voters narrowly rejected a five-year operating levy and a 10-year technology levy last fall. The operating levy would have raised $9 million per year and was defeated by only 116 votes out of more than 67,000. The tech levy, which would have generated $5 million a year, was rejected by a margin of 2,287 votes.

Currently there is one voter-approved levy in effect, a 10-year operating levy approved in 2002 that provided $306.70 per pupil, plus the cost of inflation.

After a Feb. 27 work session, it seemed likely the board would approve putting a technology levy on the ballot again, though the amount and duration were left to a future discussion. All five board members at the meeting said they would support a tech levy. Director Linda Etim was absent.

Although most board members present said they would support asking for another operating levy, Chair Dean Henke objected. Henke’s objection could strongly influence the board’s final decision because district staff research shows that a levy is a third less likely to pass if a single board member withholds support.

Henke said he doesn’t think he can support a levy unless the district can stop spending more than it takes in. He pointed out that based on current projections, even if voters approved a $9 million operating levy and the legislature gave the district another $2 million in annual revenue, the board would still need to cut $1 million from the budget for the 2015-16 school year.

“If we’re going to pass a levy, we need to substantially change the way we’re doing things,” Henke said.

He added that if state legislators claim to value education, then they should come through with funding this session. He wants to leave the onus on them, saying local taxpayers are already doing their share.

“Every time we jump in with a local levy, it just relieves them from doing what they’re supposed to do (at the Capitol),” he said.

Other board members felt such an attitude was unrealistic.

“As much as I would like to put it all on them and say, ‘OK, you take care of this,’ I have no faith that they will,” Director Tammie Epley said. “… I won’t let our kids suffer because they can’t do their jobs. … We have to give our community members a choice. I don’t think we can make any more cuts before we ask them again.”

Epley said board members have been getting many requests to go out for a levy again.

Director Teresa Lunt agreed, saying voters deserve another chance to decide.

Director Jackie Girtz said she does want to contain costs but agreed the board should again put a levy on the ballot.

Director Jim Burgett echoed her thoughts, saying the district can take employ two strategies simultaneously by working to contain costs while also investing in student achievement. He said the district is not yet where it needs to be in terms of student achievement, so it should do all it can to reach its goals.

“Give (voters) another chance to help our kids,” he said.

In addition to philosophical concerns over levies and budgets, the board must also consider the logistics of having an election in a year when there are no other races on the ballot.

On one hand, statistics show the likelihood of voters approving a levy goes up in off-year elections.

“During odd years, passage rates are higher than during even years when there’s either a presidential or gubernatorial election,” said Barb Olson, the district’s communications director.

On the other hand, being the only question on the ballot means the district must absorb all the election costs itself. The direct cost of the 2007 election and information campaign, not including staff time, was $128,000, Olson said. That would likely be higher now.

The school board decided it needed another work session to discuss potential levies, but due to scheduling challenges, it didn’t expect that session to happen until June.

During the Feb. 27 work session, the board also discussed budget cuts for next year. Board members largely supported the revised levels of cuts recommended by the superintendent. Detailed descriptions of the cuts are available at district279.org.