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Moose Lake to go back to the voters for operating referendum

Moose Lake School District will ask voters to approve an operating referendum this fall that will help keep the district's schools functioning at current levels in the face of state budget cutbacks.

Moose Lake School District will ask voters to approve an operating referendum this fall that will help keep the district's schools functioning at current levels in the face of state budget cutbacks.

In a unanimous vote on Monday, the Moose Lake School Board supported the recommendation of a Community Task Force charged with evaluating the current operating status of the schools, the need for additional referendum money to help support it and possible solutions for the district's long-term facility needs.

According to Superintendent Tim Caroline, the board endorsed the committee's recommendation to pursue 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.

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."

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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.

"The funds are needed to maintain current educational programs and class offerings," he stated. "Extra funds are going to be needed, there's no doubt about that."

Without the additional funds that would be generated by the proposed referendum, Caroline said the district would have to start prioritizing and eliminating programs and classes according "need-to-haves" and electives. He added that would inevitably lead to staffing cuts as well.

It's a position in which the district has found itself before. A similar referendum vote last fall failed by a vote of 678 to 609, at a time when the district's fund balance had already started to dwindle. At the time, however, Caroline said he believes voters didn't have any "true sense of crisis" about the state of the district, since there had not been any layoffs in the past year, the class sizes were good and the district was managing its money well.

"What we were trying to do was prepare for the storm," said Caroline of last fall's failed referendum.

With the legislature's most recent action, he said, that storm is fast approaching.

He explained that in order to bring the state budget into balance during the legislature's special session this summer, the legislature made the decision to delay state aid payments to school districts.

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"By June 30, 2012," he said, "our district will receive only 60 percent of the general education aid we earned during the year. Unfortunately, we do not have the ability to offer only 60 percent of our classes, or pay 60 percent of our salaries, 60 percent of our debt obligations, 60 percent of our insurance premiums or 60 percent of all other expenditure obligations."

In a parallel action on Monday, the Moose Lake School Board also voted to pursue the Community Task Force's recommendation to develop plans to replace the high school by utilizing the current site rather than building it at the site of district-owned property on County Road 10 where the baseball field is now located.

The high school was built in 1935 and had additions put on in 1945, 1952, 1972 and 1988. It currently has numerous issues that need to be dealt with, such as tuck pointing, roofing, plumbing, electrical work and technology infrastructure upgrades.

Caroline said the district's architect suggested it might be possible to utilize parts of the old building to augment new construction on the current site, similar to the recent Denfeld High School project in Duluth. He added there wasn't enough time, however, to develop such a plan to include it on the upcoming referendum vote.

"In the meantime, our goal is to address our building needs and do everything we can to control costs," said Caroline.

He added that the district hopes to gather enough information to put a bonding referendum for the building plan before the voters sometime within the next year.

Caroline is optimistic that the voters support what the school district is doing and he hopes that translates into support for the proposed referendum in November.

"Our kids are very important people," he said, "and they deserve to have what other kids have, and in their own home setting."

Related Topics: EDUCATIONMOOSE LAKE
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