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Paynesville Press - April 10, 2002

School district asking voters on levy again

By Michael Jacobson

Proposed Levy chart On Tuesday, April 23, voters in School District #741 will decide on another levy referendum to support the local schools.

The school board is asking voters to support a ten-year levy for $415 per pupil unit. The levy would go on the property tax rolls in 2003 and would be received by the school district for use in the 2003-04 school year.

School district voters passed a ten-year levy in 1997, but that was taken off the tax rolls after 2001 due to the tax reform passed by the Minnesota Legislature and replaced with state aid.

Local school district officials, though, maintain that the minimal increases in school funding by the state have not kept pace with rising inflationary costs. District #741 effectively will get a $100 per pupil increase next year, around a two percent increase.

For four fiscal years, from 1997-98 through 2000-01, District #741 operated with deficit budgets, bringing the district's general fund from a $1.67 million surplus in June 1997 to a $57,000 balance as of June 2001.

Voters rejected a $315 per pupil levy proposal last November, by a vote of 687 for to 886 against. That levy, which would have been put on the 2002 taxes, would have reached the school district in time for the 2002-03 school year.

Its passage would have reduced the amount of budget cuts needed for the district to escape Statutory Operating Debt (SOD). Without it, the district had to cut over $400,000 from its budget for the 2002-03 school year. (The school board also approved revenue enhancements that should raise an additional $20,000, and the district was able to reinstate $65,000 in cuts thanks to funds from the "Keep the Quality" campaign.

The district also made $500,000 in budget cuts in the winter of 2001 that were implemented in this school year. When school starts next fall, $900,000 in cuts will have taken effect over two years.

According to its SOD plan, superintendent Howard Caldwell estimates the district will need to make another $100,000 in cuts in 2003-04, $200,000 in cuts in 2004-05, $250,000 in 2005-06, and $250,000 in cuts in 2006-07.

In addition, without additional revenue, the district will have to cut the $65,000 in programs saved by the "Keep the Quality" campaign, whose donation only supports those programs for a single school year.

The $415 levy proposal would generate $560,546 for the district in 2003-04. The district, according to its promotional material, plans to use this money to maintain small class sizes, continue strong academic programs, keep quality teachers, provide additional college credit offerings, rebuild the fine arts and athletic programs, provide appropriate staff development for staff, and offer enrichment curriculum for high-potential students.

Of course, the levy means additional taxes, even though nearly half of the funds will come from the state. One confusing factor in the election last fall was what exactly would happen with property taxes, which no one could answer clearly due to the statewide property tax reform.

Would the school levy raise taxes or just reduce the tax reduction? No one could say with certainty.

This time, the tax increases that property owners will face are clear. (See table on page 1.) Commercial and residential property, as well as agricultural homesteads (house, garage, and one acre), will be taxed according to their assessed value at the amounts listed in the chart.

Seasonal/recreational property and agriculture land is exempt from the school levy, thanks to last year's tax reform. That means seasonal lakeshore owners will not contribute to this school levy, and farmers will only have to pay taxes on their house, like city dwellers, and not on all their acreage.

The school board, despite the levy failure last fall, is actually asking for more money this time around. In large part, the decision to do so hinges on the status of the budget of the state. After years of surplus, the state government is now dealing with a deficit and projected deficits in future years, leading school board members to wonder if any increases in school funding are coming.

Already, during the current session, the idea of cutting some funding to schools has been raised, so local officials believe that a locally-approved levy is the only way to insure a funding increase for District #741.

The school board, along with members of the "Keep the Quality" campaign have been more active this time around in meeting the public, outlining the school district's financial situation, and explaining the need for the levy. Board members and administrators have visited numerous groups and organizations to talk about the levy and other school issues.

Three events remain before the vote on Tuesday, April 23. This week, the school board will hold two open hearings: on Thursday, April 11, at 7:30 p.m. in the middle school media center and on Tuesday, April 16, at 7:30 p.m. at the media center in the elementary school.

The school board and administrators will also be available to answer questions at a supper on Monday, April 22, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at Paynesville Lutheran Church. The "Keep the Quality" campaign will provide a free supper that night.

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