Due to a decline in state funding and inflation, four regional school districts are seeking operating levies this year.
New Ulm, Sleepy Eye and Madelia all have operating levy questions on the Nov. 6 ballot that would increase per-pupil funding by $500 or more if passed. Lake Crystal-Wellcome Memorial is seeking a renewal of its current $316 per pupil levy.
New Ulm is seeking a $575 per-pupil increase for 10 years, a number the board did not arrive at lightly. About $725 per pupil is needed, but that amount was rejected by voters last year, said Supt. Harold Remme.
The board first considered $450 per pupil when discussing the issue at a work session in July, as the number would be more likely to pass, board members said. But community members, including mother of three Tracie Vranich, told the board she and other concerned parents would launch a community campaign to rally support for the referendum. Remme said the group has been meeting weekly and has been active ever since.
“They’re doing an excellent job,” Remme said. “That’s exciting to know we’ve got that kind of community support.”
Taxes on a $140,000 home would go up less than $170 per year if the referendum passes, Remme estimated. The levy would result in an additional $1.3 million for the district.
Remme said even if the $575 per pupil levy is voted through, the district still likely would need to make cuts next year.
The need comes from a number of factors, including enrollment that is expected to decline and a lack of state funding to keep up with inflation, he said.
The levy decision follows years of budget turmoil, including the most recent $1.1 million in cuts last spring and about $3 million over the past three years.
“In a way, it strikes me as not a good year to be running a referendum, but we’ve been bleeding for so long and the cuts have been so horrendous,” said Board Member Susan Nierengarten in July. “And if we go another year, we’re going to go beyond bleeding; we’re going to be hemorrhaging. We’ve got to try and do better by our kids.”
Madelia Supt. Brian Grenell said the district has made all the cuts it can. The district needs a $1,200 operating levy, which is a $500 increase over the $700 levy now in place. The levy would be in effect for 10 years.
“We basically have cut the fat, we’ve cut the meat, and now we’re looking to cut the bone,” Grenell said.
Over the past few years the district, which has a $6 million budget, has cut $1 million or 12 percent, which includes five teaching positions, a technology coordinator, assistants and a couple of elective classes, among other things.
“If we’re looking at cutting now, it’s going to be serious stuff,” Grenell said.
Grenell said the budget problems have to do with declining enrollment and a lack of state funding. Next year will be the third year of deficit spending for the district, he said.
Over the past 10 years, Grenell said Madelia’s district has lost 100 students. The student body now is about 530 students.
“We’re starting to stabilize, which is a good thing,” he said.
Classroom sizes have increased due to cuts, he said. Two sections in the elementary school have 30 or 31 students, and some high school electives have up to 33 students.
If the levy passes, the average $100,000 homestead’s taxes would increase by $185, which is about $15 per month, Grenell said.
“It’s a tax increase. Nobody likes to hear about tax increases,” Grenell said.
He estimates a 50 percent shot at the levy passing. He said statistics show that non-election years have 75 percent passage rates, but election years bring out more voters and the odds go down.
“I think what it really boils down to here is, No. 1, what kind of school does the community want to have? And No. 2, do they want to have a school at all?” Grenell said.
Like Madelia, Sleepy Eye has made all the cuts it can, Supt. John Cselovszki said. And he’s not sure what to think about this year’s attempt at a $500 operating levy.
This will be the fourth attempt at getting a levy passed. Three past attempts over the past three years have failed.
“It is very hard,” he said.
Cselovszki said the district first attempted a $1,500 operating levy, which decreased to $750 last year.
“Now we’re down to $500,” he said, which would be in place for five years. “Just trying to get our foot in the door.”
A $500 levy would increase taxes on an average $100,000 home by $104, or “less than $10 (per month),” Cselovszki said. It would generate $274,309 per year for the district.
Sleepy Eye’s budget troubles are similar to that of the other districts: Inflation and a lack of state funding, he said.
“We’ve cut everything (we can),” he said. “Fifty kids to a class, that would be my next move.”
Sleepy Eye’s annual budget is about $6 million. About $850,000 has been cut in recent years, which has included the elementary principal (position was combined with superintendent’s), several elementary teachers, two full-time high school positions, the elementary social worker, the ELL teacher, office support staff, the library assistant, various high school electives and other cuts.
“We don’t have much to cut now,” he said. “We are done.”