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District 833 eyes $17M levy

South Washington County Schools may ask voters for more than $17 million in new operating revenue, a big ballot request meant to prevent spending cuts and replenish depleted district reserves.

A majority of District 833 School Board members appear to support a tentative levy measure for this fall’s election that would increase funding by $900 per pupil, generating roughly $17.6 million annually for classroom operations and other education services.

The levy increase would only be part of the district’s November ballot, however. The school system also has tentatively planned a $142.5 million bond measure split between two questions — $96 million for middle school construction projects and $46.5 million for other building improvements and expansion.

Neither the levy nor the bond has been finalized.

The preliminary property tax impact of an approved levy would be an additional $453 on a $250,000 home, according to district estimates. If both of the proposed bond questions passed, the tax impact would be another $152 annually. The total impact of a successful levy and bond referendum would be just over $600 a year on a $250,000 home.

Board members have discussed the bond and levy separately in recent weeks and will talk about both proposals at their June 4 meeting. They need to decide on the bond by next month; a levy decision must be made by July.

School Board Chairman Ron Kath said he is comfortable putting a larger levy before voters. State aid to schools has increased on average about 1 percent annually, he said, while the board has settled employee contracts that include salary increases of 2 to 4 percent a year and other district costs increase at even higher rates.

“If you’re not getting revenue, guess what? You have a non-sustainable model,” Kath said.

If the district’s programs are a value to the community, they should be supported, he added.

Board member Sharon Van Leer said she could support the $900-per-pupil request because of the potential budget cuts looming if the levy is not increased. School children already feel the effects of budget cuts, she said.

The levy increase would mean the district would not have to consider a package of budget cuts next year and could begin building up its budget reserves. The fund balance sits at less than 2 percent of operating costs but would gradually grow to more than 10 percent over four years.

The district has a policy of maintaining a fund balance of between 5 and 9 percent of the operating budget, though Finance Director Dan Pyan said his preference would be reserves totaling roughly 16 percent of the district’s budget, or two months of expenses. 

Administrators presented three levy options last Thursday: $700 per pupil, $800 and $900, but board members rejected the $700 option because it would not even get the district’s budget reserves back to 5 percent of the budget.

Board members also asked administrators to determine whether a levy increase could start at a smaller amount and increase over time.

The district has cut expenses and tapped most of its reserves in recent years as it faced budget deficits. Administrators say state aid has not kept up with inflation and rising school costs and the main solutions to balancing future operating budgets is to cut spending further — eliminating staff positions and some programs — or ask voters for more property tax revenue.

Administrators justify the proposed levy in part by noting that the district ranks 31st out of 48 metro school districts for all spending. It’s 21st out of 48 in classroom spending and has the lowest rate of district-level administrative spending.

“We are well in line with needing to improve our revenue,” board member Michelle Witte said.

The state of Minnesota has increased education funding in recent years, but much of the new money is targeted for specific use, District 833 Superintendent Keith Jacobus said. 

“There has been increases in education greater than the 1 percent (basic state aid increases), but it’s been categorical,” he said. That doesn’t help with the district’s rising operating costs, he said.

 

The South Washington County School Board will discuss its bond and levy proposals at its next regular meeting at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, June 4, at the District Service Center in Cottage Grove.

Scott Wente

Scott Wente has been editor at the South Washington County Bulletin since 2011. He worked as a reporter at other Forum Communications newspapers from 2003 to 2011.

(651) 459-7600
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