District 196 to ask voters for levy increase

D196 officeSchool district could face cuts even if referendum is passed

Officials in the Rosemount-Apple-Valley-Eagan School District will ask voters this fall to pass an estimated $10 million annual increase to its operating levy.

The School Board unanimously approved on Aug. 5 asking voters this November to revoke its existing levy and replace it with a 10-year, $1,486 per pupil levy.

This would result in a $375 per pupil increase from the current operating levy, which brings in $20 million annually. The existing levy is set to expire in 2015.

If passed, homeowners would see an estimated $184 increase in the school district’s portion of taxes on an average-valued home of $225,000.

“This doesn’t solve the problem, though,” Board Member Art Coulson said.

Officials warn that the school district could continue to face budget shortfalls despite an increase in the levy.

The district could face an estimated $4 million in cuts during the 2014-15 school year due to unstable state aid, which has failed to meet inflation. The largest of these is a $1.5 million reduction in the district’s contribution to employee health insurance premiums, made possible with better-than-expected savings from the district’s switch to a self-insured health plan last year.

The 2013 Legislature approved additional funding for education for the current biennium, but when factoring inflation, the general education formula allowance has fallen by $332 per pupil over the past 10 years.

Without a levy referendum, the district could face deeper cuts totaling $9.5 million in 2014-15 and $23.5 million in 2015-16.

“It’s not to scare anyone,” Board Member Joel Albright said. “We just want to be transparent.”

District 196 could likely avoid any cuts by pursuing a $16 million increase in the levy – the state maximum – but a recent residential survey showed strong opposition to such an increase.

The same survey indicates residents would be more willing to pass a $10 million increase. Of the 400 randomly selected households within District 196, 58 percent indicated a willingness to pay up to $24 more per month ($288 annually) in taxes for a new levy referendum.

The district faced a series of budget adjustments between 2009 and 2012 totaling $34 million.

These adjustments came as fee increases, program and transportation reductions and 193 cut staffing positions, most of which were teaching positions.

The district also imposed a two-year salary freeze for nearly all employees in 2010.

“We’ve done everything we could to prevent a levy increase,” Superintendent Jane Berenz said. “Taxes have gone down in the last four years.”

District 196 spends less per pupil on administration and transportation and more on instruction than the average for the state, metro and 10 largest districts, according to the Minnesota Department of Education.

The district spent $81 per pupil less than the average of the 48 metro-area school districts, according to the report. It spent nearly $500 more per pupil on regular instruction than the state and metro averages.

District officials intend to provide additional information about potential budget cuts at the Aug. 19 School Board meeting as well as on the district’s website.