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Paynesville Press - October 31, 2001

Proposed levy spurs debate at hearing

By Michael Jacobson

Revenue vs Expenses Different views about school funding needs clashed during a public hearing for the school district's upcoming $315 per pupil unit excess levy referendum.

School officials and opponents of the levy presented different notions about whether the change in state funding to schools made the levy necessary or not.

"We're not passing a new levy," said Pat Flanders, school board chairman, referring to the $315 levy approved by district residents in 1997 that will be rolled into state funding for the 2002-03 school year. "With the wave of a wand, our old levy was taken away."

"I'd like to give this a new term. I'd like to call it a levy reinstatement. We asked you four years ago, and you agreed to it," said Flanders, adding that he was offended that the state made the district go out and repass its levy.

School district resident Dr. Don Millner, a critic of the levy proposal, said the district had not adequately explained that the district wasn't losing the revenue from its previous levy, it was just going to come from the state and not local taxpayers. He said the district's literature was misleading because it didn't make it clear that the revenue from the old levy was not being cut.

While it's true that the state will pay the $315 per pupil unit levy - plus an additional $100 per pupil unit - to the District #741 in the 2002-03 school year, rolling these funds into the general foundation aid was done in place of real new funding, Flanders noted.

The extra $100 per pupil unit is not enough to help the school district through its current situation, said board member Deb Glenz. "We as a community need to pay extra."

The state has rolled funding into its general formula before, Flanders added, (citing transportation funding as a prime example) under the guise of more local control and giving the impression of a funding increase, while subsequently freezing the revenue amounts.

The state is saying that it won't really support schools with significant new funding, Flanders said, forcing districts to resort to an additional levy. The message from the state to school districts, he continued, is: "If you want any new, real operating dollars, you have to prove it by passing an operating levy."

The revenue is now needed for school operations, not extras, added superintendent Howard Caldwell, and therefore should be called an operating not an excess levy. "The reason for the change in terminology is because we have come to rely on it," he explained.

Jack Bugbee wondered if the board had any idea how much money it would need in the future from additional levies.

Flanders responded that the district never really knows what the state will do in the future, which is a major problem for school finances. "If the state of Minnesota would go back to funding education the way we once did... we wouldn't have to do this ridiculous process," he said.

School officials told the audience of 40 residents about the district's recent financial history, how factors like declining enrollment influenced the budget, and what the levy revenue would provide the school district. The newest estimate, said Caldwell, is for the levy to provide an additional $473,000 in revenue to the school district in the 2002-03 school year.

One question centered on why, since the district has lost nearly 14 percent of its student body in the past six years, a corresponding reduction in the budget hadn't occurred.

"They're not all in the same grade," said Glenz of the enrollment losses. "They're not all in the same classes. They're spread out." This makes it difficult to decrease staff, and costs, as fast as the enrollment declines.

School's aren't like businesses that can cut a service that is not profitable, added Tami Stanger, who was one of several candidates for the school board in attendance at the hearing, including Glenz, who is running for re-election.

The board also pointed to unfunded mandates from both the state and the federal governments. One of the costliest these days is technology, said Flanders, which every school needs but has trouble affording.

The state's solution to technology was to offer $7 million in grants, which larger districts with the ability to hire or with access to professional grant writers had the edge in getting. "It's like throwing a drop of water in the desert and expecting a forest to grow," Flanders said of the state's inadequate funding attempt.

If the district doesn't keep up with technology, he warned, "we'd have a mass exodus. Talk about open enrollment - phew - they'd be gone."

Earlier, Caldwell pointed out that the district had a net benefit of 55 students through open enrollment, meaning that the district still compared favorably to other schools in the area. The levy is needed, he stressed, to avoid more budget cuts, which might decrease the perceived quality of education in the school and lead to further enrollment losses, which would lead to further revenue losses, and so on.

Even if large cuts are needed again, Millner doubted that the school operated so efficiently that it really couldn't afford to cut five or six percent of its budget.

Flanders disagreed, pointing to the cuts approved last winter that went into effect this school year. Doing cuts like that again would be detrimental, he thought.

Millner also took the school officials to task for emphasizing the amount of funding that the state would provide toward the levy (56 percent, according to Caldwell). "The money that comes from the state isn't free," Millner said. The money, he emphasized, comes from local taxpayers, too.

Flanders agreed, but noted that defeating the levy would not save local taxpayers any state tax. "You're still going to have to pay that sales tax. You're still going to have to pay that income tax. It's just going to go to other districts," he said.

"If they pass theirs," added teacher Murry Rafferty of the other 180 school districts proposing levy referendums on Tuesday, Nov. 6, "they get the money. If we don't pass ours, we don't get any."

"I'd like my share to come back to my school," he continued.

"We're never going to compete with the bigger schools," countered Don Kelm, an opponent of the levy and another school board candidate. "We're never going to catch them, so don't try," he added.

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