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R-P School Board determines referendum amount

Fri, Sep 4th, 2009
Posted in Education

In a nearly vacant room, with the exception of two members of the media and one district teacher, the Rushford-Peterson School Board came together in a special meeting to discuss and determine the fate of a new operating levy on Monday, August 31st.

With disappointment and surprise, board chairman John Nitecki expressed his concern that there were no district citizens present. In disbelief he opened the discussion by saying, "I was looking for some input from the community."

Nodding in agreement, the board immediately set to the thorny task of determining what referendum would go before voters on November 3rd. While the board was in unanimous agreement that an increase to the current operating levy amount was beyond needed, the issue at hand was in what amount. During the discussions, it was plainly obvious that the board is sensitive to the effects a referendum would have on the community, but is relatively pinned between trying to speculate what funds will be available and the rising cost of maintaining the programs and facilities of the district.

Superintendent Chuck Ehler laid out the basics. The current levy, of $840 per student was approved in 2002 but is scheduled to expire June 30th, 2012. In this levy, there is no inflationary clause, a measure that would have certainly brought some relief to the district. Such a clause allows the levy amount to fluctuate in diverse economic situations and is based upon the consumer price index.

Wanting a distinction between the two issues, the board cast a separate approving vote on the need for an increase with an inflationary clause in order to cement their goal without having to make a hasty decision on the size of the increase.

Moving on, in an effort to further clarify, Ehler stressed that the levy is for daily operating costs only. That amount is predicted to be $550,000 next fiscal year. While the school can feasibly operate on the current levy, Ehler limited the idea saying the district could only function at such a level for one year. Seeking to be fiscally responsible, he continued, "It costs money to borrow money. I encourage you not to get into that position."

Several factors have played into the district's current situation. It is facing a 27 percent withholding in funding, due to state cutbacks, as well as the loss of $158,000 next year in flood assistance. There is also the looming chance that the state could choose to do an unallotment. Citing previous situations, it was noted that unallotments in the 2 percent range and up are always a possibility.

Ehler stated, "No one knows how the economy will flow. The levy is a safety net." He went on to explain the district's constantly shifting projections due to stimulus funds, state cuts, and local revenue. "Nobody knows what numbers are coming." Trying to put a positive spin on the situation he continued, "I think people have realized not only what difficulties our community has had, but our district, too. We have been very blessed."

Looking for parameters to gauge their decision, the board came to the obvious fact that even if a large operating levy is passed, based on budget predictions, the school could still fall short. Citing the increasing facilities' costs as well as prized programs at the school, Nitecki pointed out, "We put these programs into place and didn't ask for more money. This could equalize some of the great things we've done. This is a good opportunity to do that."

After yet more discussion, the board took what was considered a modest step forward. In a roll call 4 to 3 vote, the board approved a $100 increase to the operating levy. If passed, the new $990 per student levy would bring in $70,962 in funds to the district. For relative figures, this would keep the district in the mid-range in comparison to other local school district levy amounts.

In the most basic terms, the increase would translate to a 3.5 percent net increase in property tax and on average in the community, a $50 amount (actual amounts will vary). Again it was stressed that the taxable amount for agricultural properties will be based on the value of the house, garage, and one acre. With passage, the funds would become available to the district for fiscal year 2011 (2010-2011 school year).

The referendum vote will take place along with the general elections on November 3rd. A mailing of a tax impact statement will be sent out to all district property owners prior to the vote. Looking to further clarify their cause, the district intends to mail out a fact sheet with detailed information.

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