District 191 eyes two levy questions

New authority could join levy renewal on November ballot

School District 191 voters may find two tax questions on the ballot in November.

The first is renewal of an expiring 10-year levy voters approved in 2007. It raises $7.3 million a year toward district operations. Renewal would keep the money flowing, without raising taxes, for another decade beginning in 2018-19.

A second question would raise taxes by granting $3.9 million in new levy authority. Officials say the money is needed to help shore up annual budgets that have relied on dwindling reserves to prevent cuts in programs and personnel.

The district needs the extra money “to not have to make cuts,” School Board Member Eric Miller said at a June 22 board workshop.

Board members will vote July 13 on whether to proceed with both questions on Election Day, Nov. 7. They agreed June 22 to consider adding the second question, which would raise an additional $415 per pupil.

The combined net impact of both levies on a $250,000 home would be a $120 increase in school taxes in 2018, according to the district.

“I’m comfortable with the $415,” Board Member Jim Schmid said. “That’s $10 a month for a $250,000 home.”

The combined levy authority of $1,172 per pupil ($757 for the renewal and $415 for the new levy) would be raised annually for inflation, as allowed by state law.

A district-commissioned household survey suggests support for the new taxes. In a phone survey by the Morris Leatherman Co., 68 percent of respondents said they’d support a tax increase for school operations. A $10 monthly figure polled highest, at 23 percent.

“I think it does show that our community is very pro-public education and willing to spend a little bit more to maintain great programming,” Board Member Bob VandenBoom said in an interview.

The survey results are “reassuring,” board Chair Abigail Alt said in an interview.

“We have been spending down our proverbial savings account” to protect programs, Alt said.
Budgets have included deficit spending in the general fund for a number of years, she said. The trend continues in the 2017-18 budget, which the board approved June 22. It taps $4.8 million from the general fund’s unassigned balance.

“Look at the audited amounts, not the budgeted amounts,” VandenBoom said. “The audited amounts show spend-downs in the last few years of fund balance, and you can’t continue to spend down your fund balance. You can’t operate in the red.”

Alt said it’s especially important to avoid cuts on the heels of the Vision One91 improvements now underway in the district.

“I’ve been all about maintaining consistency and momentum,” she said. “That’s why we’re looking at possibly asking the voters for an increase to that levy.”

The $415 per pupil is less than the district could ask for. Under state law, it could seek up to $625 per pupil in new authority, according to Lisa Rider, executive director of business services. The $10 preference in the household survey was a factor in arriving at $415, she indicated. Board members also considered a $380 per-pupil option.

Officials say they’ve taken steps to reduce costs, including debt refinancing that will save taxpayers $4 million in future payments.

And if state funding had kept up with inflation over the last 15 years, the district would have nearly $600 more per pupil, the district says, citing a Minnesota Department of Education analysis.

“Our community is interested in attracting and retaining high-quality teachers, and we heard that loud and clear,” Alt said. “We really need to look at what it is that we need to stay whole. There’s always state funding, and we do appreciate the additional funding that the state has added to the formula. We thank our legislators for that. Unfortunately, costs are rising faster than the formula increases are.”

Under the second question’s proposed wording, the added levy authority could not be authorized unless voters approve the renewal.