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Perham-Dent looks at new levy option

The Perham-Dent School Board is moving forward with plans to seek a Capital Projects Referendum in April.

The referendum would ask local taxpayers to fund specific needs within the district, such as technology and facilities improvements, through a voter-approved levy.

At a workshop last Wednesday, board members agreed to continue narrowing down a list of 'needs' and 'wants' for the schools. They said they want this process to be open to - and influenced by - the public.

The board plans to hold public informational meetings and visit with civic and other community organizations to garner feedback. After four previous failed levy attempts, board members said they needed to ensure public support for this one before giving it the official 'go-ahead.'

They'll have to act fast -Superintendent Mitch Anderson said that at least a rough idea of the final dollar amount for the levy would need to be decided on by January, in order for the state department of education to have time to review the district's request. It may still be possible to tweak that total after that.

The referendum is just one budget-balancing option on the table; if there does not appear to be public support for it, it is likely the board will not proceed.

For now, questions about how much money the district will seek, what the money will be used for, and what it might cost taxpayers, are all up for discussion.

However, an initial wish list of buildings and grounds improvements and desired technology upgrades, provided to the board by school administrators, puts the levy in the range of roughly $3 million to $4 million. As board member Mike Hamann said, this figure could be "whittled down" and adjusted, with the public's input.

"We've got to be out and open with the people," said board member Arnie Thompson.

Based on conversation at the workshop, the levy would likely be paid out over a four to five-year period.

What it is

A Capital Projects Referendum is a voter-approved property tax levy. Unlike operating levies, which is what the district tried for in the past, this kind of levy may only be used toward specific capital projects. Proceeds must be placed in a special account and used only for the approved purposes.

A Capital Projects levy differs from an operating levy in that: 1) All property owners pay for it, including summer cabin and agricultural owners; 2) It's less expensive per taxpayer; and 3) The money cannot be used toward teacher salaries. These three factors, Anderson said, directly address the top three reasons for 'no' votes on previous referendums.

The vote would be held at the beginning of April; contrary to previous reports, it would not need to be a mail-in only ballot.

Taxpayer impact

What comes out of taxpayers' pockets depends on the amount the school district is asking for. In Perham-Dent's case, that amount has not been decided on yet. Based on some initial estimates, however, it would not be more than $4 million (unless there was strong public support for more).

So, to give a rough idea: Assuming the district asked for $4 million (paid out over four years), the cost to the owner of a $150,000 home would be $72 per year for each of those four years. Seasonal rec and agricultural property owners would pay similar amounts. Individual taxpayers would end up paying about half the amount they would have paid under the previously-sought operating levy - a factor the school board hopes will boost public support.

But, as one resident who attended the workshop pointed out, any increase at all may be too much for some voters. This man said his property taxes already increased 13 percent this year, and he simply can't afford any more.

Board members said they're doing what they can to lessen the impact on taxpayers, but that they still have a duty to provide students with the highest quality education possible.

"It's an investment in our kids that we're after," said board member Thompson. "It's a good investment."

What it would pay for

This, too, is still up for debate, depending on what there is or is not public support for. But a couple of things talked about at the workshop provide a starting point for discussion. First, the district wants to incorporate new technology into the classrooms, and second, there are upgrades and repairs that need to be made to the district's schools and other buildings. These are things that a Capital Projects Referendum could pay for.

At the workshop, Buildings and Grounds Director Fred Sailer handed out an itemized list of facilities improvements - some necessary and some simply hoped for - which identified specific projects and their estimated costs. 'Replacing the gym roof at Heart of the Lakes Elementary,' for example, would cost an estimated $38,475, while replacing the boilers at the high school would cost roughly $200,000.

In all, Sailor's list includes 36 line items, totaling more than $2.2 million - the board and the public could review this list and choose to remove or add any items as they see fit.

The other big chunk of the levy money, as the school board envisions it, would go toward technology in the schools.

As laid out in a presentation at the workshop, levy dollars could be used to purchase iPads for the schools, which would be used as instructional tools and, in some cases, in place of textbooks.

Teachers at the workshop said this kind of technology "would only enhance student performance," providing students with the kind of educational opportunities that they want (and need) to be career and college ready.

New projectors, classroom amplification systems and some needed upgrades to the supportive infrastructure (including the addition of three new technology support staff members) were also on the list. Purchases related to curriculum, such as new non-fiction books for the elementary school library, were included, as well.