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School District 833 to put three levy questions before voters this fall

School District 833 voters will be asked this fall to chip in more property tax money for local schools.

Voters will see three school referendum questions on the November ballot that, if passed, will increase property tax revenue for school security, classroom spending, reserve funds and land acquisition for two future school buildings.

The South Washington County School Board approved the three-question ballot plan at a July 16, meeting. Final approval of the exact wording of the questions is expected at an Aug. 8 meeting.

The first ballot question will ask whether to renew two existing school levies previously approved by voters. A $164-per-pupil levy is up for renewal this year and another $52-per-pupil levy is up for renewal in the fall of 2014. They would be renewed at $180 per pupil and $62 per pupil, respectively, due to changes to a state formula used to calculate per-pupil funding. However, the district would continue to receive the same amount of revenue -- $4.6 million annually -- from the new levies.

If approved, the continuation of the second levy would not start until 2015.

The district was working to determine correct estimates for how much property taxes would decrease if the existing levies were not renewed. Those figures were not available by press time.

Voters must approve the levy renewals or a second referendum question asking for an additional $6.98 million cannot be passed. That second question would translate into a $337-per-pupil increase in local education funding

The estimated property tax increase on a $250,000 home would be $60 a year.

The money from an approved second question would go for security improvements at district schools. Those enhancements would include more control over entrances at elementary schools that currently have open atrium entrances and are not always under direct observation from main offices, among other improvements.

It would also go to technology upgrades to increase Internet capacity and staff development for teaching and learning strategies.

An approved second question also would provide cash to the district to make up for its use of reserve funds to erase budget deficits over the past six years. Dipping into the reserves to balance budgets has eaten away at money set aside for emergencies.

The district has increased class sizes by an average of one student for the 2013-14 school year. Additional money from the second levy question also would address keeping class sizes low, administrators said.

Passage of a third question on the November ballot, a bonding measure, would allow the district to buy land for a new elementary school and a middle school at an unspecified time in the future, for up to $8 million.

About 80 acres would be needed and could be on one campus or separate, according to Mike Vogel, assistant to the superintendent for operations.

The third question's annual tax impact would be an $8 increase on a $125,000 home and a $20 hike on a $250,000 home for the 20-year life of the bonds, according to Aaron Bushberger, district finance director.

The board approved the referendum plan 6-1; Jim Gelbmann opposed the plan because he preferred the board approve the second levy renewal of $62 by resolution, as allowed by the Legislature.

"We need to keep it simple." Gelbmann said. "When you start confusing voters, you're asking for trouble."

At the July 8 meeting, Gelbman proposed a fourth ballot question asking voters to approve another $100 per pupil with decisions on how the money would be spent made at each school.

After researching the suggestion with Ehlers, the district's bond consultants, and the Minnesota Department of Education, Bushberger said the additional amount would cost taxpayers as much as the $7 million because of legislative changes in school district property tax law.

Gelbmann asked if part of the funding generated from an approved second ballot question could be dedicated for building decisions.

If the board wants to dedicate some of the money, that decision can be made later, said board Chair Ron Kath.

Board member Marsha Adou asked if the board should increase the second referendum question from $7 million to $7.5 million. At $7.5 million, it would raise the estimated $60 annual property tax another $20 on a $250,000 home, according to Bushberger.

A Decision Resources survey said people would be willing to pay an additional $5 a month or $60 a year, Jacobus said.

Board members, except Gelbmann, agreed that the three proposed questions would be on the ballot.

Three questions sets up for success, Jacobus said, "though we shouldn't take that for granted."

Board member Katy McElwee-Stevens asked if the administration is getting "what they need" in the ballot questions.

The critical needs are technology and security, Vogel said.

Next would be covering the deficit and addressing staffing.

Decreasing secondary school walking distances could be accomplished, he added.

Gelbmann said he is concerned about "priorities." Emphasizing lowering class sizes is what "will really move the needle" for voters, he said.

Judy Spooner
Judy Spooner is the longest-serving staff writer at the South Washington County Bulletin. Spooner, who covers education and features in addition to writing a weekly column, has been with the newspaper for over 30 years.
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