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School District 833 considers three questions for fall referendum

Any uncertainty about whether South Washington County Schools will put a referendum to voters in November 2017 was laid to rest early.

District 833 School Board members indicated last week they support a three-question levy and bond vote this fall.

The question to be answered in the coming months: What, specifically, will the district ask of property taxpayers?

"We are asking for what we actually need," Superintendent Keith Jacobus said Jan. 19 as he opened what will be a months-long discussion with board members and the community about a possible three-question referendum.

The district appears likely to ask voters to renew its largest existing operating levy; to approve another operating levy increase; and to support a bond measure for construction projects. It will finalize its referendum plan this summer.

$14.9 million levy expiring

The district's largest operating levy, which collects $14.9 million a year, is set to expire next year. District leaders say failure to renew that $771 per-student levy would have major consequences on the budget and classroom operations. It could wipe out the district's $7 million reserve fund and force another $7 million in classroom spending cuts.

"I'm not sure you can increase class sizes enough to cover that kind of a deficit," board member Tracy Brunnette said.

"It's quite scary to think if that doesn't pass," added board chairwoman Katy McElwee-Stevens.

A proposed levy increase is a continuation of the district's referendum effort two years ago.

In 2015, the district said it needed an additional $900 per student. Following citizen feedback that was cool to a one-time increase, the district said it would split the request over two elections.

Voters in 2015 approved a $525 per-student increase, or $10.3 million annually. The district planned to return to voters in 2017 for the remaining $375 per student, or $7.3 million a year.

"It was made clear we're still going to need it," Brunnette said.

Even if a $375 per-student levy increase was approved this fall, the district still would fall under the levy cap set by the state.

"This moves us forward and we believe that if the state at least even maintains the funding source and doesn't look at major increases, with this increase we should be able to live within our means, improve things for kids and not come back to voters in a foreseeable future," Jacobus said.

High school additions

A third referendum question this fall could look familiar to voters — a bond measure to pay for an addition to East Ridge High School and improvements and additions to Park and Woodbury high schools. All elementary schools also would see construction improvements.

Two years ago voters turned back that $46.5 million bond, and administrators said funding for those projects would be on a future ballot because the needs will not go away.

"Schools need improvements and we are expecting more enrollment, so we just have to be proactive versus reactive," McElwee-Stevens said.

The district's general fund spending is about $211.4 million this year. It collects a total of $36.7 million from three operating levies. The majority of school funding comes from state-collected taxes and is distributed to districts with a per-pupil funding formula.

District 833 leaders cannot decide their referendum plans until after lawmakers this spring set a new state budget.

Jacobus said District 833 is like many other districts turning to local voters to "shore up some of the lack of funding" from the state.

This would be South Washington County's third levy request of voters in six years. A state requirement that voters approve levy renewals causes the district to return to the ballot, Jacobus said. The next existing operating levy is scheduled to end in 2023.

Jacobus said the district cannot go to voters to increase revenue without doing everything possible to reduce existing spending.

"We have curbed our costs and really eliminated everything that we could," he said.

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.

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