School districts take referendum votes to the people on TuesdayWhat is an operating levy? An operating levy is a method by which school districts can raise additional revenue with voter approval. The revenue raised through an operating levy supplements regular state education funding. Close to 90 percent of the state’s school districts have local levies to support education. The state average for a local levy is $936 per student.
By: Wendy Johnson, Pine Journal
Residents of four school districts in Carlton County will have the chance to go to the polls Tuesday, Nov. 8, to vote on operating referendums in their districts. Barnum, Cloquet, Esko and Moose Lake will all ask voters to approve referendums designed to help the schools stay on sound financial footing in the face of recent state cuts and/or delays in reimbursements to local districts.
According to the Association of Metropolitan School Districts, not only has state funding failed to keep pace with inflation – funding increased 11.4 percent between 2003 and 2011 while inflation grew by 35.1 percent in that same period – it’s also not paying its share of special education costs. In addition, in order to bring the state budget into balance during the legislature’s special session this summer, the legislature made the decision to delay 40 percent of its state aid payments to school districts. That fact alone, according to area school superintendents, has made financial planning difficult and paying the bills in a timely fashion to retain the status quo almost impossible.
Although none of the four referendum questions come close to the state average of $936 per pupil unit, districts are asking for more than they have in the past, something that doesn’t sit well with everyone. Some have written letters, while others have expressed their opposition in other ways. In the Barnum area, school board candidate Michael Line hung a “Vote no” message on some mailboxes Monday night, noting that the referendum will raise taxes. In Cloquet, school board member Dan Danielson had to replace two “Vote yes” signs in the Sunnyside neighborhood that were cut in half last week.
Following is a brief outline of each district’s levy referendum questions. It should be noted that the “per pupil unit” amount is not what each property-owner would pay – property tax impacts are broken down in each section according to property value – instead, it basically refers to how much the levy would benefit each full-time student.
With its current $200 per resident pupil operating referendum expiring after the current school year, the Barnum School District is asking voters to approve a $400-per-resident-pupil operating referendum for the next 10 years.
According to an informational brochure from the district, if the current $200 operating referendum expires and is not replaced, a home valued at $100,000 would pay $200 less per year in the debt service and operating referendum levies portion of the district taxes than was paid in 2011 because of past levies that will be paid off by the end of this year. If the new $400 referendum is passed, that same $100,000 home owner will pay $116 less than was paid in 2011, a difference of $84.
“We’re at a point in time that we’re paying off debts we’ve had for several years,” explained Barnum Superintendent David Bottem. “So people will still see a tax decrease for the school’s portion of their taxes.”
The district would use the approximately $300,000 per year generated by the referendum in a number of ways, Bottem said, including maintaining small class sizes, adding an Early Childhood Family Education class to ensure school readiness; continued updating of technology; retention of the current variety of school electives and college credits; maintaining the regular schedule of building and ground maintenance; and continued coverage of the ever-increasing transportation costs as well the replacement of buses and vans.
Polls will be open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday at the Barnum High School Auditorium.
With the current Cloquet School District operating levy slated to expire after the 2011-2012 school year, the board chose a two-part levy question to replace and augment it. The first question will ask voters to renew the existing $97.61-per-pupil levy while the second question asks for an additional $275 per pupil unit.
If voters choose not to renew the referendum, they will see a property tax decrease of about $24 per year ($2 per month) on a home valued at $120,000, and the district will lose nearly $380,000 in revenue, according to Superintendent Ken Scarbrough. In this case, the district would have to continue making even deeper cuts into school activities, curriculum and staff members to try to soften the blow of the district’s deficit.
The second question is contingent upon the first, meaning that in order for Question 2 to pass, voters must also vote “yes” to the first question. Question 2 asks voters for an increase of approximately $275 per pupil, which would add nearly $800,000 into the district’s budget.
This money would be used for student interests such as bringing in up-to-date technology to the schools, new teachers and low class sizes.
The current operating levy equates to $23.84 per year in taxes for a home valued at $120,000. An increase would raise taxes by an additional $67 per year for a home of the same value, bringing the total to a little over $90 per year – the equivalent of 12 extra movie tickets each year, or one ticket per month.
Polls will be open in Cloquet from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Nov. 8 at the Cloquet National Guard Amory, 801 Highway 33 South.
The Moose Lake School District is pursuing an operating referendum on the Nov. 8 ballot that would increase the current $250 per pupil rate (for an annual total of $189,000) to a $450 per pupil rate (for an annual total of $340,000). The current referendum is slated to expire at the end of this year.
Superintendent Tim Caroline stressed that the proposal does not increase residents’ taxes by the per pupil rate.
“One of the problems that we’ve faced,” said Caroline, “is that when voters see that $450 figure, they think that’s how much their taxes would be going up. That figure is the amount the referendum would raise per pupil, not the tax impact.”
He gave as an example the amount the new levy would cost the owner of a $100,000 home in the district. Under the current levy, that homeowner is paying $53.75 per year. If the proposed referendum is passed, that same homeowner would pay $94.54 per year. Caroline added that the board decided against factoring in any inflationary increases over the 10-year period of the referendum, though they are allowed under state law.
Caroline said that while in the past, operating referendums were utilized primarily to provide enhancements, today they are almost a matter of necessity in order to maintain the status quo.
Voting in the Moose Lake School District will take place from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Nov. 8 at the high school gymnasium, 413 Birch Avenue.
The Esko School District’s current levy of $1 per pupil unit – passed in order to access state funding – is set to sunset after 2012. In light of that fact, the district will ask the community to approve a $341-per-pupil-unit operating levy.
On a home valued at $100,000, that’s a tax increase of $49.82 per year. On a $200,000 home, it’s an increase of $99.63 per year over the current levy, or less than $9 per month.
If it passes, the Esko School District would gain approximately $280,000 in new revenue, provided enrollment remains steady and state funding doesn’t diminish even more. The revenue would be utilized basically to continue to offer reasonable class sizes, bring back the district’s industrial arts program and continue to enhance technology offerings. Superintendent Aaron Fischer said the district would also like to bring back a couple of elective classes at the high school, including anatomy, which was offered in the past but isn’t anymore because of budget cuts.
The special school district election will take place in the Esko Schools Media Center from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 8.
Voters who cannot vote on Nov. 8 may vote absentee. All absentee voting will be conducted by the Carlton County Auditor’s office, located on the second floor of the Carlton County Courthouse in Carlton, through Nov. 7. Voting can be done between the hours of 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. through Friday, Nov. 4; as well as from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 5, and from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday, Nov. 7.
No absentee voting will be conducted at the individual schools.