School board members seek public input on levy increaseIt looks more than a little bit likely that the Cloquet School District will vote to triple the per-student levy assessed to district taxpayers at its Sept. 23 meeting.
By: Jeff Papas, Pine Journal
It looks more than a little bit likely that the Cloquet School District will vote to triple the per-student levy assessed to district taxpayers at its Sept. 23 meeting.
Currently, Cloquet taxpayers pay a levy of $97.44 per pupil, which is one of the lowest figures in the state. The Minnesota Legislature recently gave school boards the authority to increase that figure to $300 per student without a local referendum — and that’s exactly what the board is likely to do.
That would amount to an increase in the total district referendum levy of just over $526,000, according to figures recently provided to the School Board by district administration.
“So many times in the county or the city, they can levy taxes without having to put it out in a referendum,” board member Jim Crowley said. “If there are needs there, they can fulfill them, and hopefully think of the taxpayer and not selfishly add to their burden. We haven’t been able to levy like that.”
“I do see it happening,” Board Chair Gary Huard said. “I think we had to.”
At its Aug. 12 meeting, the board voted 4-0 to set its levy power at the legal limit of $300 per pupil, with Huard and new board member Ted Lammi absent.
A maximum levy hike would amount to a 14 percent increase in the school district portion of the Cloquet property tax levy. According to administration figures, such an increase would add $61 per year to the property tax bill for a $100,000 home.
That said, the Cloquet School District is still far below the state average in per-pupil spending, which is $1,032 per pupil unit for this school year, according to the Minnesota Department of Education.
At the other end of the local spectrum, voters in Carlton approved a seven-year excess levy of $1,100 per student in 2010. However, that district was also required to resolve a statutory operating debt situation, while Cloquet’s district finances are far from being in the red.
“This is the first time something came through that gave us free reign to get closer to the state average,” Crowley said. “It is going to help us. It’s something to where I as a chicken don’t have to justify it, even though I can, but I know we have needs there.”
In addition to the increase locally, 51 percent of the total levy increase will come from state coffers. That will mean a total revenue increase to the district of approximately $1.175 million if the $300 figure is adopted.
“The board doesn’t have to adopt the $300 figure and could go lower if it chooses,” Superintendent Ken Scarbrough said. “The board could also lower levies for funds that are not equalized by the state to lower the burden on taxpayers.”
It’s unlikely the board will adopt a lower figure, though.
“I do expect the board to adopt the entire $300,” Crowley said.
“You have to look at what happens to the district if you don’t adopt a higher levy,” Scarbrough said. “That’s the way to look at this long-term. You’d see cuts to programs and equipment and not maintaining technology as you should. The quality of education goes down.”
That said, more than 60 percent of the district’s operating budget goes to salaries and benefits. But Crowley is quick to point out that a levy increase won’t mean huge raises.
“We haven’t had a substantial raise in the levy since the late ’80s and I’ve been on the board for the last 10 years,” Crowley said. “I tell teachers we can only afford a 1 percent raise and the cost of living is higher than that.”
The district will also face a challenge in funding new required health care benefits, which will also require a much greater expenditure by the school district.
“It looks like we will have to provide health insurance for our paraprofessionals and anyone who is non-union,” Crowley said. “They will get the same coverage as the Superintendent. That will cost us close to a million dollars.”
Scarbrough wasn’t ready to confirm that figure, but said that costs to comply with the Affordable Care Act could be “substantial.”
“The impact is unknown,” Scarbrough said. “Of course, there has been a delay in when we are required to report on this and they still don’t know how to implement this at the federal level.”
Crowley and Huard are concerned that all the expenditures and tax hikes may cause sticker shock — and tax heartburn — down the road.
“We are circumventing the proper channels, taking it out of the taxpayers hands,” Huard said. “But that is an iffy thing because down the road we are looking at a referendum.”
The district recently provided board members with a draft of a facilities plan that outlines a number of options for either repairing, or more likely replacing, the Cloquet Middle School. Most cost estimates in the proposal run northward of $30 million.
“That will hurt certain people,” Crowley said. “Some people, we’ll never change their minds. Right now the middle school is a safety problem, and with kids crossing Carlton Avenue there, it’s dangerous. People complain about bus exhaust fumes between Queen of Peace School and the middle school, we’ve got tuckpointing needs there that we have chosen not to address so we could pay for other things, and there’s no outdoor phy ed facility at the middle school.”
“They have to cross Highway 33 to get to outdoor facilities and that means in a 40-minute period, you’re spending 20 minutes walking,” he said.
Despite those identified needs, Crowley and Huard both said that an excess levy referendum on top of an increase in the student levy may cause problems.
“I have no problem justifying the $300 figure but I do know there are people out there that don’t have the money [to pay higher taxes] and we are liable to hurt people,” Crowley said. “That is one thing I hate to do, which is to see that someone is a loser. Some will be losers if we pass a referendum for a new school.”
“You don’t know how [a student levy increase] would impact that particular cause (the building referendum),” Huard said. “People in this day and age want to make sure that we are doing the right thing financially. I have some issues with a building referendum myself and I want to talk about them.”
Both Crowley and Huard are asking for public input at the board’s meeting on Sept. 23, where the per-pupil levy will be set.
“I would encourage people to talk with the board,” Crowley said. “We need citizen input, otherwise the only input we get is from administration. It’s easy to paint a pretty picture when you only get one side. I want a balance between taxpayers and the kids but if I have to pick between the two, I’ll side with the kids whenever I can.”
“I would encourage people to talk with the board any time,” Huard said. “That [public input] is what we lack. It would be more than welcome. How can we make a judgment when we don’t even know what people are feeling? You hear bits and pieces in the store and on the street and some are for and some are against but we don’t have a concrete idea. We represent the public and without knowing their concerns, it is hard sometimes.”