Levy-lobbying fires up as referendum vote nears
Voters will decide November 4 whether or not to increase funding to the Perham-Dent schools by an estimated $950,000 to $1 million.
Campaign efforts on the increased levy have been limited mostly to Together for Kids, a group promoting a "yes" vote to increase local taxes by $695 per student. Current enrollment in the Perham K-12 schools is 1,426.
But within the past two weeks, an opposition group has been forming, "Concerned Citizens for Property Tax Fairness."
"We're not against helping the schools, but not to this extent," said Bernie Steeves, an Otter Tail Lake area resident who has frequently attended school board meetings during budget and finance discussions. He is one of the organizers of the Concerned Citizens group.
Proponents of the levy increase, which would increase taxes by an average of about $200 to $300 for most homeowners, have a simple mission: Educate the voters; explain that state funding for education simply has not been adequate.
"The increased money will only maintain what we have today," said Staci Malikowski, co-chair of the Together For Kids committee. "There is nothing additional, nothing new, this is just maintenance of the programs we have now."
If approved by the voters, the levy will be implemented for a time frame of up to ten years.
"The school should be run like a business--why not a two-year levy? Why ten years?" said Steeves, a retired business owner. "In business, you budget a year at a time--you don't project out ten years."
Over the past four years, the school has cut nearly $2 million. Programs and staff slashed in the cuts range from the band room to the kitchen.
"Our school board and administration has been very responsible with the way funds have been managed," said Malikowski. "We've waited as long as possible to push this levy--I think we waited too long. Without the operating levy, the school would immediately cut another $500,000."
One of the arguments from the Concerned Citizens group revolves around the long-term enrollment projections. Perham-Dent school enrollment fell from 1,462 last spring, to 1,426 with the new school year. With many elementary grades falling below 100 pupils, the trend is likely to continue.
While enrollment is slipping, it is in small increments, said Pat Nordick, Concerned Citizens co-chair.
"Budget cuts to classroom teachers will be made, but over an extended period of time," said Nordick. "When you lose one or two students in a grade, you still can't cut a teacher. So the expenses will continue, despite enrollment declines."
Drops in student numbers are a double-edged sword. Fewer students mean less per pupil aid, under the state's education financing formula. So revenue declines, but reducing costs by cutting classroom teachers isn't always an option.
"The issue is when we have 130 graduate and less than 100 coming into kindergarten, we see roughly an average reduction of $360,000 in revenue," said Superintendent Tamara Uselman. "You can't cut that many teachers without having class sizes increase radically. And class size is important in terms of student achievement. If we have class sizes of 50, students will not achieve at the rates needed for academic success."
However, notes Uselman, the board and administration have "cut and cut and cut" as far as possible.
Perham is not alone in the struggle. More than 90 percent of Minnesota school districts already have, or are in the process of, increasing levies to fund operations, noted Nordick.
The Concerned Citizens group includes a range of home and business owners. Many of them are lakeshore homeowners--many with high property values. For a home valued at $500,000--not uncommon on area lakes--the annual tax bill will rise by $717. For a home valued at $1 million--also not uncommon--property taxes would increase $1,195 annually.
Opponents of the levy referendum are concerned that fixed-income retirees could lose their homes. Further, the levy increase could have a severe impact on businesses throughout the district's boundaries, said Steeve.
The Concerned Citizens have begun an advertising campaign to encourage a "No" vote.
Meanwhile, the "Together for Kids" group has raised about $13,000 for its public information and promotional campaign.
The "Together" committee is asking people to go to the website link below and sign up if they plan to vote "YES" for the education referendum.
In addition to the togetherforkids549.com website, community members can view an interview of Superintendent Uselman explaining the facts surrounding the upcoming levy on ACS Video Channel 14 every Wednesday at 10 a.m. during public access and every Wednesday and Thursday evening at 7:30 p.m. and 7:45 p.m. during the month of October.
School levy for '09 down 17.5 percent
Local taxes to operate the Perham-Dent schools will fall 17.5 percent next year.
The 2008-payable-2009 levy was approved by the Perham-Dent School Board Sept. 25, and it will be a reduction of $515,000 from the previous year.
The payable 2008 levy was $2.94 million. The payable-2009 levy will be down to $2.43 million.
One of the largest savings was $450,000 which was levied for the extensive indoor air quality project. The school levied for that approximate $1 million project over two years, and those expenses will be retired in 2008.
The Perham-Dent school's total annual budget is $15.3 million. The total budget, however, is also funded by a wide range of state and federal aid sources.