Operating levy referendum approaches

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On Nov. 7, the Red Wing School District will ask two questions of Red Wing residents to help shore up the district's operating expenses.

After making budget reductions totaling over $2.4 million during a three-year period, Red Wing School Board members spent several months reviewing budget assumptions and projections before authorizing an operating levy referendum in a July meeting.

"The district is asking the community to consider providing a source of funding that will enhance the quality education our students receive," Superintendent Karsten Anderson said.

The approaching operating levy referendum differs from the 2016 building referendum approved by voters, which provided funding for maintenance and safety/security projects.

The operating levy provides funds to the district's general fund on a per pupil basis.

For several decades, declining enrollment has impacted the district's funding. In addition, legislative funding increases have not kept up with the rate of inflation.

"Most of our revenue is based on how many students we have in the district," Anderson said. "As our enrollment declines, so does our overall revenue. Increasing per pupil will assist in offsetting declining enrollment."

The Red Wing School District is not alone in its need to ask local taxpayers for support.

Most Minnesota school districts rely on voter-approved operating levy funding to operate their schools. According to data from schoolfinances.com, 338 schools in the state operate 10-year operating levies, compared to the 34 schools that opt to a five-year levy. Anderson said with a 10-year levy, the district will have a more stable and predictable funding stream.


The ballot questions

The November ballot will consist of two questions. Voter approval of the first question would revoke the district's current operating levy of $811.64, which was originally approved by voters in 2008, then again in 2012 as a straight renewal vote. Question 1 aims to replace that levy with a new levy of $1,235.64 per student. If approved, the levy would increase by the rate of inflation and be applicable for 10 years.

Anderson said the intent of the $424 increase is to regain that amount from a 2015 state legislative action that converted $424 to a separate levy — a local optional revenue.

The second question is seeking an additional $500 per student to increase the district's general education revenue, and would also increase by the rate of inflation and be applicable for 10 years. Question 1 must pass for question 2 to pass. If voters approve only the first question, district business manager Jackie Paradis said the district could be looking at a negative fund balance by 2021.

"By bringing the two questions to voters in 2017, we will have a second chance in 2018 if one or both questions fail," Paradis said. The current operating levy of $811.64 expires in 2019.

If neither question passes this year, Anderson said he will recommend another election in 2018.

"We have to pass something before the current levy expires, or we will have significant issues with our budget," he said.

Community investment

With the 2016 building referendum passing, significant improvements are being made throughout the district's buildings.

"That good repair work is investing in our future," Anderson said.

The superintendent sees the operating levy in a similar light.

"This is an issue for the entire community," he said. "Strong communities have strong schools."

Two community meetings are planned for 5 p.m. Friday, Oct. 13, at Red Wing Public Library Foot Room and 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 26, in the media center at Burnsville Elementary School. Attendees will be able to view the proposed plan, gather information and ask questions about the upcoming vote. Absentee ballots are available in the district office at Red Wing High School Monday-Friday, 7:30 a.m.to 4 p.m.

On election day, Tuesday, Nov. 7, three polling places will be operating: Burnside Elementary School, Red Wing Public Library and Red Wing High School.

"The school district is doing its best to put out the best product we can for our students," School Board member Mike Christensen said at the Oct. 2 meeting. "People criticize government a lot, saying it should be run more like a business. We are asking for investment from our shareholders to put money into our business, so that we can make a product, and bring a better product to the people."

Christensen said education impacts the wellbeing of our community through positive property values, building a strong sense of community and making the employee pool stronger.

"It attracts people to the community which has the potential to grow more students," he said.

"We can't make a better community without investing in it."

Estimated first-year monthly tax increase

The monthly tax impacts on residential homestead, apartments and commercial-industrial properties are in the table below. Taxes are based on taxable, not estimated, market value.

"By law, we can only ask for levies that are paid for by local property taxes," Anderson said. "We have no other options."