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District maps out levy plan

The District 833 School Board was expected this week to approve a proposal to ask voters for $6.88 million this fall for more school security, technology support, addressing class sizes and shoring up reserve funds used to balance past budgets.

In discussing their options at a meeting last week, board members also appeared inclined to ask for an additional $8 million to buy land for another middle school and an elementary school that would be a response to current and future population growth in Woodbury and Cottage Grove.

The property tax impact of the first ballot question would be $60 a year on a $350,000 home or $36 a year on a $150,000 home.

Bonding to buy land for future schools would be an additional $20 a year on a $350,000 home, or about half that for a $150,000 home.

The board also discussed another ballot question asking voters to renew two voter-approved referendums that are set to expire. One levy, which generates $169 per student, expires this fall. Another, for $57 a student, is set to end in the fall of 2014.Total annual revenue from both is $4.6 million.

Approving levy renewals wouldn't raise taxes, but allow the district to continue to get the funding, according to Aaron Bushberger, district finance director.

Board members seemed firm that the ballot would have three questions but wanted to see the actual wording of the questions. They were scheduled to finalize the referendum plan at a meeting Tuesday, July 16, after the Bulletin went to press.

District's pitch

Though the Minnesota Legislature this year increased education funding by $1.5 million for 2013-14 and an additional $1.5 million the following year, the district is still relying on its reserves to make up for deficits, according to District 833 Superintendent Keith Jacobus. Officials say school spending did not keep up with school costs over the past decade.

In each of those years, the board also cut budgets so its reserve funds would last longer.

Without renewal of the operating referendum this fall, the 2014-15 budget would include more cuts and less money to make up a deficit, Jacobus said.

In past referendums for money to operate schools, the district asked for additional teachers, buildings and $1 million a year for technology.

But administrators say the technology money has only allowed the district to tread water and make little progress on classroom needs for computers and technology infrastructure.

To get students ready for the 21st century, more computer bandwidth is needed.

Currently, if each student used a their own laptop, iPod, iPad or smartphone at school, they would overload and crash the computer support system, according to Keith Ryskoski, assistant superintendent for secondary education. He said much staff development in technology is also needed.

Also, building safety and security, because of school shootings, have become the top concern for residents, according to a Decision Resources survey done several months ago.

Those surveyed said they would be willing to pay for additional security; keeping class sizes down was second in line. A majority of those surveyed would vote to support extending existing levies and were willing to pay an additional $5 a month.

Board members also favored buying more land for a new middle school and an elementary school at some time in the future. That would be supported by a land acquisition levy question.

Although there is no guarantee as to when units would be built, Cottage Grove is forecasting 200 additional housing units a year and Woodbury wants 600, according to Mike Vogel, assistant to the superintendent for facilities.

Vogel estimates about 80 acres would be needed and could be on one campus as is the case with Grey Cloud Elementary School and Cottage Grove Middle School, or on separate parcels.

East Ridge land was bought for $100,000 an acre, Vogel said.

The district has a high bond rating and could get a favorable interest rate, board Chair Ron Kath said.

Possible consequences

Board member David Kemper favors extending the existing tax levies but isn't keen on the rest of what's being proposed.

Cottage Grove, with 61 percent opposed, failed to pass its parks referendum last fall, he said.

"People want value," Kemper said, and asked what the district plans to do if a referendum fails.

The situation would be "difficult," Jacobus said, and plans would have to be postponed and class sizes would go up.

It's important for the district to emphasize that more money would keep class sizes down. The community has always supported low class sizes, board member Jim Gelbmann said.

The board debated extending the $57 levy by resolution, something recently approved by the Legislature and favored by Gelbmann.

Other board members, including Kath, favor remaining with the tradition of asking for voter approval.

Judy Spooner
Judy Spooner is the longest-serving staff writer at the South Washington County Bulletin. Spooner, who covers education and features in addition to writing a weekly column, has been with the newspaper for over 30 years.
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