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School Board to seek levy renewal

South Washington County School Board members informally agreed last week to seek an increased property tax levy on the November ballot.

District 833 has a current levy of $3.4 million, or $164.38 per student, expiring in November 2013.

During the June 20 meeting, board members looked at several levy options including a renewal without an increase, a renewal plus an increase and not seeking a renewal.

“We are not at a point of recommending one of these,” Superintendent Keith Jacobus said. “We need to decide where we want to go as a school district.”

The first option discussed was letting the current levy expire.

By not renewing, the district’s deficit would continue to grow, said Aaron Bushberger, director of finance. That would in turn result in a minimum of $3.5 million in cuts for the 2014-15 school year.

“I don’t know where we could cut anymore without hurting,” School Board Member Tracy Brunnette said.

All board members agreed that letting the levy expire was not an option.

“We need to renew,” Board Member Laurie Johnson said. “There’s the future to consider.”

Possible increases

In terms of seeking a renewal and an increase, Mike Vogel, assistant to the superintendent for operations, presented three potential options.

“We looked at where is our greatest area of need,” he said.

Vogel said the two primary areas that could be addressed through a capital projects levy would be technology infrastructure and security improvements.

The first option Vogel presented to the board would be for $3 million, $150 per student, annually.

A second option would move to an operating levy and would not only fund technology infrastructure and security improvements but would also help to maintain the district’s fund balance. That would be a levy of $6 million, or $300 per student.

The third option, an operating levy, would bring in operations and maintenance, transportation, district support services and instruction resulting in a levy of $9 million, or $450 per student, annually.

All three levies could run for up to 10 years, Vogel said.

Board members said seeking an increase is something that should be considered.

“We’re still $3 million deficit spending,” Brunnette said. “We should try to get us back to zero. We need to get our revenue and expenses a little more on the even side.”

Johnson agreed that board members should make it their goal to get the deficit back to zero.

“At minimum we need to get back to where we started,” she said, “and maybe get a little bit ahead of that.”

Board members said the ideal situation would be to seek a levy increase that would result in a zero percent increase to property taxes.

Based on legislative changes as to how student population is calculated, the board could request about $5 million while still having a zero percent increase on property taxes.

“It’s pretty minimal from a tax burden perspective,” School Board Chairman Ron Kath said.

Another item that should be considered, Kath said, would be whether or not to include a land bond question on the ballot.

“Sooner or later we’re going to need a middle school and we’re going to need an elementary,” he said.

Vogel said he would expect the district to need a minimum of 40 acres at a cost of about $100,000 per acre.

Brunnette said she isn’t sure a bond question should be included on the November ballot.

“I wouldn’t want to ask people to pay that,” she said.

What’s next

The board will discuss possible ballot questions during a special meeting on July 8.

“We need more than we can realistically ask for,” Jacobus said. “This is a jumping off point to discussions.”

The board will also look at what kind of an impact a possible bond question would have on property taxes next month.

Additionally, the board will discuss the possibility of including its 2014 expiring levy of $1.2 million, or $57 per student, in next year’s levy renewal so it would not need to seek two renewals in two years.

The board is expected to make a final decision on its levy requests at its July 16 meeting.

“This is just extending our present into the future,” Johnson said. “We’re trying to maintain the status quo. This is a nerve-wracking thing to look at.”

Mike Longaecker

Mike Longaecker is the regional public safety reporter for RiverTown Multimedia. His coverage area spans St. Croix and Pierce counties. Longaecker served from 2011-2015 as editor of the Woodbury Bulletin. A University of Wisconsin-River Falls graduate, Longaecker previously reported for the Red Wing Republican Eagle and for the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau. You can follow him on Twitter at @Longaecker

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