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Paynesville Press - March 6, 2002

School will attempt another levy referendum in April

By Michael Jacobson

Now that the required budget reductions at the School District #741 have been made, the Paynes-ville Public Schools can concentrate again on passing a levy referendum.

The district - which is in statuatory operating debt, a state designation for district's that do not have enough unreserved dollars in their general funds - tried to pass a levy last November, but voters rejected it. A proposed $315 per pupil levy was voted down at the November polls, 886 to 687.

Now district voters will get another chance to vote on Tuesday, April 23. This time, though, the district will ask voters to approve a $415 levy, with the hope that the recent budget cuts will be fresh on voters' minds.

The school board approved the new levy referendum at their meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 26.

After voters rejected the levy referendum in November, the school board tried to have another vote before the end of December, which would have allowed the levy, if passed, to have gone on the 2002 taxes. The money, then, would have reached the school in time for the 2002-03 school year, which would have mitigated the need for the recent budget reductions.

The school board acted immediately following the levy defeat in November to approve another vote in December, due to the timelines required for publication and notification of levy referendums. The state, though, refused to allow the district to hold another vote then.

Now, the district has approval from the Department of Children, Families, and Learning for another levy vote on April 23, superintendent Howard Caldwell told the school board last week. "So we are actually all set to go, if you are interested," he said.

"We need to do it," responded board member Tami Stanger.

Choosing the date
After the levy failed in November and a second vote was denied, focus shifted towards having a spring vote on another levy proposal.

Originally, the intent was to have the levy possibly in May, but the state has a moratorium on elections from April 29 to September, due to the redistricting that needs to be done in the state following the 2000 census.

This left the district with only two options: have the levy in April or wait until the general election in November.

The November vote is unappealing to the district for a couple reasons. First, it means having to battle all the political races for attention on the issue. And second, it means having the vote conducted at the general polling places, instead of doing the polling at school. The school district would have to provide ballots and ballot boxes to each municipality with residents in the school district, which is more complicated than having a single voting site at school.

By having the vote in April, the election can be conducted in the lobby of the Paynesville Area Elementary School, as has been the custom in school elections.

This new levy referendum, if passed, would go on the 2003 property taxes and would provide additional funds to the school district for the 2003-04 school year.

Choosing the amount
Caldwell presented three options to the board: trying a $315 per pupil unit levy again, asking a two-part levy question (first for $315 per pupil and then an extra $100 per pupil for technology), or trying for $415 right away.

At a previous board meeting, some support for the two-part question was expressed. But that support seemed to evaporate last week.

After considering the two-part question, board member Allen Schmidt said he didn't think it would work, even though he had raised the idea earlier. The $100 for technology would, at best, be used as a sacrificial lamb, he said.

Board chairman Pat Flanders agreed that the two-part question might lead to more misunderstandings and confusion.

"That's where I'm at," said board member Deb Glenz. "If we really need $415, don't color it. Ask for it right up front."

The $415 levy would raise an extra $560,546 in revenue for the school district in 2003-04, according to projections by Ehlers and Associates, the school district's financial consultant. Of that amount, $277,645 (just under 50 percent) would come from the local tax levy, and $282,901 (just over 50 percent) would come from state aid.

Beyond the district's financial need as shown in the recent budget reductions, two factors helped the board decide to go for a larger levy referendum.

First, since the levy amount is dependent on pupil units, the gross amount it generates will decline as the district's enrollment continues to drop.

Second, since the last levy attempt, the state budget has gone from a surplus to a $2 billion deficit, and the prospect of cuts in state funding to schools has been raised. This makes increases in future state aid to schools less likely in the coming years. "We don't know what's going to happen with state funding (for schools)," said Schmidt, "but it's not going to be more."

"We know that (state budget deficit) is really going to restrict education funding," added Flanders later.

New strategies
Explaining the increased amount was one reservation expressed by board member Mark Dingmann, who supports a school levy but was concerned that another vote in April was too soon. In order for this levy to be successful, Dingmann said, the board and supporters need to educate the public on the need for it; explain why the vote is being done in April, so soon after the last levy was rejected by voters; and restore faith in the board.

"I'm willing to do that if everyone is going to go out and hit the pavement," said Dingmann of getting the district's message to the public.

One gesture Dingmann made to the public last week was to personally thank everyone who spoke at the public hearing on the proposed budget cuts in February.

"Mark and I talked the other day, and we need to have a more concerted effort to get our message out," agreed Flanders.

In order to do this, the board is enlisting the help of the "Keep the Quality" Campaign members. That group -╩which raised over $65,000 in donations to the school in the month of February to help alleviate the impact of the budget cuts - established helping to pass a levy referendum as its second goal after the initial fund raising.

(The group's third goal is to establish a foundation to help the school.)

The board set a special working meeting for Thursday, March 7, in the media center at the elementary school to discuss ideas and new strategies in this levy campaign with the committee members.

"Don't sell it as a need," Paul Bugbee, who helped organize the "Keep the Quality" Campaign, advised the school board last week. "Sell it as promising programs. This money is going for this program."

Lower class sizes, curriculum offerings, and extracurricular opportunities are, he said, the stuff to get excited about.

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