District 197 Debates Referendum Options for Fall
How much to ask for from voters and how to ask for it are questions to be answered in upcoming weeks.
There was plenty of discussion by District 197 school board members but no consensus Monday night about the details of a referendum to be put on the ballot in the fall.
The district failed to pass a referendum last November that would have renewed an existing $1.7 million levy set to expire next school year and increase it by roughly $1.7 million to the maximum allowable by state levy limits.
Now, the district is dealing with over $1 million in cuts to programming that has already been targeted year after year.
The administration has attempted to bring forward ideas to redesign the delivery of education in the district to save money, but has been met with resistance over ideas like reducing the high school to a six-period day with a zero hour, and moving Mendota Elementary into Friendly Hills Middle School to create rental income and efficiencies.
Some of those parents that have spoken out against changes to the district have volunteered to promote and ultimately pass a levy.
“This is the ways levies are meant to be, with the community rising up to request one,” said Superintendent Jay Haugen.
Options that the board discussed include renewing the existing operating levy for $1.7 million, which is described as essential if the district doesn’t want to drastically alter the programs it offers.
The board can ask for an increase in that operating levy, again with roughly $1.7 million available, though the district could ask for less.
Also on the table is a separate capital levy, which could offset dollars being spent out of the general fund for things such as technology and equipment, freeing up general fund dollars for operating expenses.
Whatever combination the board decides upon could be asked for in one question, or several.
Discussion centered around whether to incorporate a capital levy to avoid hitting the maximum operating levy cap, or whether a capital levy to ultimately fund operating expenses would be confusing or misleading for voters.
While board member Dewayne Dill said that asking for the levy limit would be perceived as “maxing out” the credit card, board member Cristina Gillette said that regardless of whether it passes or not the district will still need to make reductions to its expenses.
“It will be so much worse if we don’t go to the full amount,” Gillette said.
The state is anticipated to provide flat funding again this year, according to Finance Director Carl Colmark.
To once again ask for the renewal and increase the levy to the limit would cost homeowners an additional $34 a year per $100,000 of property value, according to numbers generated May 3 by the district’s finance department.
For a capital projects levy of $510,00-$1,010,000, the tax impact would be $10-$19 per $100,000 of residential property value and roughly $19-$38 a year per $200,000 of commercial and industrial property value.
While those numbers don’t present a significant financial burden for some, board member Pat Barnum said that for a significant portion of the district, every penny counts.
“We have a district of haves and have-nots,” said Barnum.
In a U.S. Census tract (county subdivision) that reaches from Delaware to I-35E and from Annapolis Street to Highway 110 for example, 27 percent of households spend 30 percent or more of their income on a mortgage, according to data from the American Communities Survey from 2005-2009 and the New York Times' "Mapping America" project.
In a U.S. Census tract of West St. Paul west of Highway 52, that percent jumps to 46 percent.
The same data shows that while that particular West St. Paul Census tract has an average household income of $33,655, the median income in the Mendota Heights tract is $105,000.
Those with the lowest incomes tend to reside in neighborhoods with higher immigrant populations. “The people with the least means, the most trouble financially, will be the least likely to vote,” said Barnum.
The board had planned to make a decision at their first meeting in June about what the ballot question will be, however, data from a district survey that could inform their decision won’t yet be available, according to Communications Director Susan Brott. The board pushed the decision to their second meeting in June to take into consideration the results of the survey.