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South Washington County School Board plans three-question referendum; ballot approval Aug. 17

South Washington County School District voters will decide three questions on the Nov. 7 referendum.

The district has settled on seeking renewal of an existing general education levy; asking for a funding increase that's part two of a multi-year levy measure; and requesting additional funds for technology.

The District 833 School Board signed off on the three-question plan earlier this month and is expected to approve the ballot language at its meeting Thursday, Aug. 17, at the District Service Center in Cottage Grove.

The first question will seek renewal of a levy that's been in place 20 years. It was renewed a decade ago, and the district is seeking another 10-year renewal this fall. The levy generates $15.3 million a year, or $780 per pupil, for basic classroom operations.

Administrators and board members say that without the renewal, the district could face a $15 million shortfall. That's roughly the equivalent of 130 positions in a district where personnel costs make up 83 percent of the budget.

"We would have major cuts in programming and services if we didn't do the renewal question," Superintendent Keith Jacobus said during a presentation to the board Aug. 3.

Renewing the $15.3 million levy won't increase property taxes, though they would decrease if the levy is rejected.

The second levy question will seek a property tax increase of $7.5 million a year, or $375 per pupil annually. The district considered a $900 levy in 2015, but split it over two election cycles. Voters approved a $525-per-pupil increase two years ago. Administrators say the additional $375-per-pupil is needed to maintain current programming.

A $2 million annual technology levy is the third question. The money would be used to update, replace and modernize aging personalized devices students use in class, such as tablets, as well as to pay for software programs. It would not pay to provide a laptop or iPad device for every student to take home, Jacobus said.

"It's the software we use to educate our kids," technology director Bob Berkowitz said.

Board members strongly backed the three-question plan.

"Truly if it was my money would I invest in this product, and I can honestly say I would here," board member Ron Kath said.

They also said they did not want to tie the questions together, so that passage of one question is contingent on voters approving another.

"I think we need all of them but every little bit helps in my opinion," Katie Schwartz said.

If the second question is approved, property taxes will increase by $190 a year on a home valued at $250,000, according to district estimates. A successful technology levy would add another $47 a year in property taxes on a $250,000 home. The total annual increase if both levies are approved would be $237 on a $250,000 home.

Board members and administrators have stressed the importance of the district's communication and messaging heading into the fall campaign, particularly following a public survey earlier this summer showed a tougher climate heading into the election campaign.

They point to state funding changes, and state aid increases that haven't kept up with the inflationary costs of district spending, as reasons they need to seek more local property tax revenue to avoid big classroom reductions.

Jacobus said in 2012 or 2013 80 percent of district funding came from the state. Now it's 75 percent.

"That 5 percent on a $225 million budget is a lot of money that is now transferred to us as a district to reduce our budget, or to ask our public if we maintain the same services and the same programs that we need more help financially," 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.

(651) 459-7600
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