Owatonna school district eyes possible levy

/ 2 May 2012 / jennifer

Derek Sullivan, Owatonna People’s Press, May 2, 2012 –

OWATONNA — Before the Owatonna school district plans another trip to the ballot box, it will ask the community for some advice.

On Monday night at the district office, Owatonna superintendent Tom Tapper, district officials and the school board discussed a possible ballot initiative in either November 2012 or 2013 to increase or extend the operating levy, which since 2002 sits at $691 per pupil. That levy runs through the 2015-16 school year.

During a school board meeting on April 11, board member Vicki Jensen asked for a study session to look into the pros and cons of a ballot initiative to raise the current operating levy. Also, in that same meeting, the school board cut $1.8 million from its budget, which included staff layoffs at the elementary, junior high and high school levels. Next year, the district will need to cut $1.2 million. The district also plans to use about $7 million from its general fund between now and 2015. Last winter, a community ad-hoc committee was put together to look at ways to deal with rising costs and fewer state dollars. The committee — which included Jensen — recommended several ideas, including a new levy.

On Monday, the board discussed raising the operating levy, which has remained at $691 per pupil since 2003. Due to inflation, district officials say the current levy now is only worth $549 per pupil. Tapper said the average statewide operating levy is between $900 and $950 per pupil. Fellow Big Nine school Winona has a state limit $1,500 per pupil operating levy.

But to increase the levy, the district will have to return to the ballot box.

Voters haven’t been too friendly to local schools in recent years. The district has suffered losses at the ballot box in 2007, 2008, 2010 and 2011. In 2010, the voters did approve an extension of the current levy to the 2015-16 school year.

Though 2010 voters did not support all-day kindergarten or the acquisition of Pillsbury, they did –by almost 5 percentage points (52.08 to 47.92 percent) — support the extension of the levy.

One year later, the district asked the voting public to support an additional $417,000 a year levy for 10 years to cover costs associated with a second attempt at acquiring the campus of the former Pillsbury Baptist Bible College. Though the acquisition of Pillsbury failed by just 11 votes, the additional levy failed by 545 votes (53 percent to 47 percent).

On Dec. 12, 2011, six weeks after the ballot defeat, Tapper issued a document titled, “Finding A Pathway Forward: Putting The Classroom First.” Inside the 16-page document, Tapper said he would not recommend a return to the ballot box in 2012, and he wrote that the board should not advance a bond levy in November 2012.

Tapper did not make a recommendation during Monday’s meeting. But he also may not be around for the November vote. Later at the meeting, Tapper announced he plans to retire, effective July 1. He did say that there is no reason to rush.

“We basically have a two-year grace period before we start to deficit spend,” Tapper said.

Once the current levy runs out, the district will not have enough money in its general fund to pay its bills and will then need to deficit spend.

It’s unknown how much the district might ask the voters to approve. A lot depends on how Minnesota decides to fund its schools. Currently, schools receive 60 percent of anticipated funding in the fall and the other 40 percent is supposed to be delivered a year later. In 2013, the Legislature will again look at how to fund schools.

If the levy vote takes place in November 2013, the school district will know exactly how much it needs for the 2014-15 school year.

Another key factor influencing how much the levy could be is the fact that school expenses tend to increase by 2.9 percent each year, which means the district — unlike in 2002 and 2010 — will most likely ask for a levy that increases on a yearly basis to keep up with inflation.

Before moving forward with any ballot initiative, the board plans to gain community input. Board members discussed a professional survey, which would be conducted this summer.

If the district wants to be on the November ballot, Tapper believes the board has to approve the referendum by the Aug. 13 board meeting. Tapper said deciding in August gives the board enough time.

“As our future senator (Vicki Jensen) will find out, six-to-eight weeks is a lifetime during a campaign,” Tapper said.

Jensen announced last weekend that she will run for state Senate in District 24.

Board member K.J. Wall said going to ballot box in six months could mean no budget cuts next year.

“We have to ask ourselves what we are sacrificing by waiting a year. The answer is another round of cuts,” Wall said.

Fellow recent board appointee Jose Herrera agreed that avoiding budget cuts should be a priority.

“I really believe the voters will support (the levy) this year,” Herrera said. “The community does not want to see another round of cuts.”

A November 2013 ballot initiative would be an “all or nothing”measure, said Tapper. If a new levy is on the November 2012 ballot and fails, the district can come back one year later and try again.

Derek Sullivan can be reached at 444-2372.