Board votes for $300 levy, final vote in DecemberThe Cloquet School Board decided to set the maximum allowable levy limit for the coming budget year at its meeting on Monday night.
By: Jeff Papas, Pine Journal
The Cloquet School Board decided to set the maximum allowable levy limit for the coming budget year at its meeting on Monday night.
Under the limits passed by the board, the per-pupil “board approved levy” will rise from the present $97 per student to $300, the maximum allowed without a referendum under new limits passed by the Minnesota Legislature.
“We are operating in a budget environment that sees us spending about a million dollars more each year than we take in,” Superintendent Ken Scarbrough said before the meeting. “We have to put the brakes on that pretty soon or we could eventually wind up in a statutory operating debt situation.”
While the board-approved levy for each student may essentially triple beginning next year, Cloquet still ranks well below the state average in per-pupil spending, which is at around $1,000 according to district figures.
“That’s remarkable,” board member Jim Crowley said after the meeting. “I think we’ve done a very good job of holding down costs to the taxpayers in years past.”
However, one Cloquet resident urged the board to put the levy amount up for referendum, even though state law does not require it.
“The city, county and the state should be doing it [putting levies and taxes up for vote], and I realize that you’re being picked on,” Lee Anderson said during public comment. “But it would be prudent to put this before the voters.”
Anderson and Crowley exchanged opinions before the meeting began, with Anderson suggesting that the board look at benefits for district employees as a way to cut spending among other ideas.
“It’s an issue of priorities,” Anderson said. “What are your priorities?”
Crowley replied that benefits for employees were negotiated as part of union contracts and could not be unilaterally reassigned, and said, “The state has given us the opportunity to get all the money [the district] can get without an election. Maybe that’s not fair, and if people don’t agree they can vote accordingly at the next election. But I will vote this way (increasing the levy) all the time for kids.”
Anderson was the only member of the public who offered comment to the board.
When all district levies are taken into consideration, the Cloquet School District portion of the property tax levy will rise approximately 16 percent from a year ago, to a total levy of $4,325,711.15. That’s up $605,482 from a year ago.
By contrast, though, declines in the total levy in recent years show that the percentage increase since 2010 has been a lower figure of 6.92 percent.
New figures released by the district estimate the added tax burden on the owner of a $100,000 home will be approximately $70 per year.
The new levy is expected to raise approximately $1.1 million for the district each year for the next five years, with state tax dollars accounting for the remaining $500,000 of the funding increase.
A portion of that increase could — but not necessarily will — be spent on increased health insurance costs to the district under the Affordable Care Act. The board also voted to add an ACA-compliant plan furnished by Health Partners to the district’s offerings, in accordance with new law.
“You had a levy of about $8 million a few years ago,” Anderson told the board. “How much of that went to help students? I pay more than my fair share of taxes and I’m not worried about that, but how much of these levies go for new books and programs?”
Scarbrough said that without the increased levy amount, the district could face severe financial problems.
“In the worst of both worlds, you’d see levy increases and cuts in services,” Scarbrough said.
“The issue here if we don’t do this now, is that we’d eventually have go to the voters and ask them for more money in levy because the state match wouldn’t be there,” board member Dave Battaglia said.
The board will set the exact levy amount at its Dec. 9 meeting, which begins at 6 p.m. in the Garfield Board Room. The public is invited to attend.