Last fall, the Rockford Area School board was faced with a tough situation. Mainly due to unusual enrollment numbers, the district found itself coming into a rather expensive school year.
“While we usually see an enrollment of around 50 or so students a year, we saw a year where it kind of flattened out,” said superintendent Paul Durand. Though the schools, like any other, are annually supported largely by the state and federal government, the enrollment numbers played a large factor into a significantly lower budget.
The district was also experiencing its first fiscal year without the benefits of a 5-year referendum that had been accepted by Rockford residents in 2010. In order to keep up with all current school expenses, the district was left with a difference that it was not equipped to back itself.
The school board turned the issue over to its residents with two levy proposals that failed during the general election in November. If passed, the first would have increased its general revenue by $1,142 per pupil, and the second would have raised the net tax capacity of the school district by 3.8%, raising $395,100 for the school per year. Both proposals would have resulted in a property tax increase valid for nine years.
Since the failure of the referendum, the school board has met twice to work through possible reductions to the budget. Among a $906,928 list of reduction options, the Board has been tasked with approving a final list of approximately $515,000 by the end of this school year.
At a school board work session Monday, the board opened the meeting to public comment exclusively. A large number of students, teachers, parents, and residents of the school district spoke on behalf of the programs the school board had listed in the reduction list. Many spoke on behalf of programs in the arts and agriculture, but nearly every item in the reductions list was represented.
Said Superintendent Durand: “This is not an easy process. We are looking at programs we have backed and wanted for our schools, and the last thing we want is to see them minimized or lost entirely.”
As to the permanence of the reductions, the Board still has a few action items to consider. A possible solution would be to amend the levy proposals and have another referendum in the spring. However, this would have to be in the form of a mailout ballot, and the schools would have to pay for all components of the vote. “If the issue at hand is cutting the budget, trying to save money,” said superintendent Durand, “then it makes more sense to have a referendum during the fall general election so the cost isn’t put entirely on the school.”
Referendums are also limited to one per year, so a spring referendum failure would result in a longer wait period and a cost to an already suffering budget.
Another option is to make levies more affordable. According to Durand, after a levy is passed the state legislature determines the cost for the voter depending on how much property wealth the district has. Low property wealth districts like Rockford feature less commercial and industrial development within their district zone. When these districts have school levies approved, homeowners and small businesses are often saddled with a much higher cost than they would if they approved the same levy in a district with a higher property wealth.
A total of 59 districts across Minnesota with similar property wealth have teamed up to create Schools for Equity in Education, or SEE. The program aims to create a more equality in school funding regardless of district wealth.
Durand believes a long-term solution like this will provide much-needed relief to both taxpayers and the school district.
“A student from a low property wealth district deserves just as much funding as a student from a higher wealth district, and creating an equalizing factor in funding can make that a reality,” said Durand.