Duluth School Board approves plans for levy referendum

/ 24 April 2012 / jennifer

Jana Hollingsworth, Duluth News Tribune, April 24, 2012 –

The district must cut $3.5 million from its budget for next year, and an operating levy, if passed, would be for the following year.

The Duluth School Board will move ahead with plans to ask taxpayers for more money for classroom operations next fall.

The board voted 6-1 Tuesday night, with member Art Johnston opposing.

Johnston drew the ire of board members during discussion before the vote, when he accused them and the district of being dishonest about spending. Because of that dishonesty, he would vote against a levy, he said.

Johnston accuses the board of not being open and honest about how much money is transferred from the general fund to the Red Plan through special transfers and transfers that were established as part of the building plan’s original financing structure. The money that is transferred exists because of the Red Plan and consists of savings from energy rebates, operating fewer schools and property sales. If the money was not transferred, taxes to pay for the Red Plan would have to increase.

Johnston says the transfer is taking money out of classrooms and he accused the board and district of being dishonest during the attempt to pass last fall’s failed levy.

“Until you start telling the truth, it won’t pass again,” he said. “You refuse to talk about this deficit and (the transfer).”

Board chairwoman Ann Wasson said the district is audited annually by an outside firm.

“If something were out of sync, that would be noticed,” she said, addressing Johnston. “At some point, when you ask why we sit back (and don’t comment) it’s because you continue to say the same thing.”

Member Mary Cameron said Johnston continues to talk as if the board makes no decisions.

“When you speak, you add more confusion,” she said. “It’s a board decision to take the money out. When you come out here, you act as though those discussions have not taken place. You know as a board we can alter how we pay those dollars, but the burden goes to taxpayers. You are accusing us and putting (false information) out as facts. And I am offended.”

Member Tom Kasper said he took exception with being called dishonest.

“I cannot tell you how thoroughly I am disgusted with you saying that,” he said. “You should be ashamed with that statement.”

The district must cut $3.5 million from its budget for next year, and an operating levy, if passed, would be for the following year.

Congdon Park Elementary teacher Mary Ann Harala spoke of the need for a levy during the public comment period. She said work needs to start early to answer people’s questions.

“People need to understand the difference between Red Plan issues and a learning levy,” she said, noting she will probably have 32 students in her second-grade class next year. “You can’t reach everybody when classrooms are that high.”

Superintendent Bill Gronseth said 85 percent of Minnesota school districts have declining enrollment, and this year’s $50 per pupil increase from the state was mostly canceled by the expiration of a $39 state levy to taxpayers.

“The long-range facilities plan is not the cause of the deficit,” he said. “Are there ways we could fund things differently? Yes. And we can have those conversations in the future.”

He went on to say that he’s already begun talking to residents about an operating levy, and he’s learning that there is frustration over funding coupled with support for Duluth schools.

“There is this picture being painted that people are running screaming from our district,” he said, and that is not what he’s experiencing in his conversations with community members.

The board also approved new School Board election districts to balance populations and the issuance of two bonds that will add roughly $19 million more in Red Plan debt. The move was approved by the Minnesota Department of Education this month, and is meant to finish Myers-Wilkins and Congdon Park elementary schools, which are the last two schools meant for completion in the Red Plan.