Osseo Area Schools will try for two levies again

Henke withholds support for operating levy

The Osseo School Board wants a redo.

Voters narrowly rejected two levies they were asked to approve last fall, but the school board plans to try again in November.

At an April 9 work session, board members agreed to seek a capital projects levy for technology, as well as an operating levy. All board members said they would support the technology levy, but Chair Dean Henke said he would not support the operating levy.

If approved, the technology levy would raise $5 millions a year for 10 years through property taxes. That’s the same as what the district sought last fall when voters rejected the measure by a margin of 2,287 votes, or about 3.4 percent.

The operating levy in question would raise an annual amount similar to the levy proposed last year, but it would be structured differently.

Last year the board requested approval for a five-year operating levy that would provide about $9 million per year. It was defeated by 116 votes, or about 0.2 percent.

This year the board will ask voters to revoke and replace the current levy with one about $9 million larger.

The existing levy collects about $33 million a year and is set to expire in 2017. If voters agreed to revoke and replace it, the district would eliminate the current levy and replace it with one that would collect a total of about $42 million per year. This larger levy wouldn’t expire for 10 years.

Members of the board seemed hopeful the public will view the levies more favorably than last year in light of the district’s recent process of identifying cuts.

The board recently approved $3.1 million in cuts for next school year, including $575,000 of reductions to align staffing with declining enrollment. Unless something changes, the district could face another $8 million in cuts the following school year.

According to district staff, it has become apparent the state legislature will not come through with the funding the district had hoped for.

“It’s very clear at this point in the legislative session that the full-scale education finance reform … is not going to occur,” Supt. Kate Maguire said.

She said if the hoped-for reforms had been fully implemented, the district would have received about $20 million a year more than it does.

“It really speaks to the inequity that currently exists and the revenue that we currently do not receive compared to other school districts in Minnesota and in the metro area,” Maguire said.

At a previous work session the board decided to wait and see what the legislature would do before deciding whether to ask local voters for more levies. At this point in the session, staff and board members felt the district should move forward with the levies so it could have more time to communicate with the public.

“I think we owe it to our families … to ask them,” Director Tammie Epley said. “I don’t think it’s fair … to go into these huge cuts without asking them again.”

Director Jim Burgett said he was also ready to support the levies, partly out of “disappointment with the legislature.”

The other board members agreed, except Henke.

Like Burgett, Henke expressed frustration with the legislature but said he didn’t feel the district was any closer to having a sustainable budget than it was last year. He pointed out even if voters approved the operating levy, the district might still face cuts a year or two later. Until that changed, he said, he couldn’t support a levy.

Henke’s objection could lower the levy’s chances of approval by voters – district staff research shows a levy is a third less likely to be successful if a single board member withholds support.

But levy proponents have an advantage they lacked last year – the levy will be the only question on the ballot, which should make it easier to get voters to pay attention to the issue. Staff research shows levies have a better chance of approval during years when they are the only question on the ballot.

District staff will work to craft the language for the ballot question, which is expected to come to the board for formal approval in late April or early May.