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Talking Points: 'Real money' problems in state school districts

As citizens of the U.S. and Minnesota, we've become a tad bit jaded when it comes to budgets. So often we hear big numbers thrown around -- deficits in billions of dollars, projects costing millions of dollars -- that it's hard for it to truly sink in.

The feeling is summed up nicely in a quote that the late U.S. Congressman Everett Dirksen may -- or may not -- have uttered: "A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you're talking real money."

But if you really put your mind to it and think on a smaller scale, it's staggering to consider what could happen to the Morris Area School District in the next few years.

The district School Board, as expected on Thursday, unanimously approved a measure to put a operating levy ballot question before voters in November.

That's not really a big deal -- school districts for years have been going to voters, asking them to increase their tax burden for the benefit of kids and learning. But, as Morris Area Superintendent Scott Monson says, such requests used to be termed "excess levies," money above and beyond state funding that was used to create programs and learning opportunities or to hire additional staff.

Boy, where have the salad days gone? There is really no "excess" in Minnesota school districts any more.

Today, levies are a vital funding mechanism for schools, needed just to maintain what is there or to help a district avoid deeper budget cuts.

Morris Area administrators and board members can be commended for reacting conservatively in their request.

On Thursday, the board voted to ask district taxpayers to renew a $302 levy that expires next year -- and levy they already are paying -- and to increase it by $198 per student for a total of $500. Add that to a $385 levy on the books until 2015, and district taxpayers would be supplementing state aid to the tune of $885 per student per year.

The state held the line on school funding for this year, but the district is facing the possibility that aid cuts could be coming down the road. The numbers heard most often are per-student decreases of between $200 and $400. That doesn't seem like much considering the state's per-student aid formula is $5,124.

But also consider this: If the $500 levy request does not pass Monson said he projects that the district would be facing deficits of about $620,000 in 2011-2012, and about $650,000 in 2012-2013.

If the state reduces aid formulas between $200 and $400 per student, the district's annual budget deficits in the biennium could range between $807,000 and $1.41 million.

Maybe that might not qualify as the "real money" Dirksen spoke of, but it's surely "real" enough for local taxpayers who already are burdened with heavy tax loads. Also consider that none of this includes the bills that come due for city taxes, county taxes, taxes for the elementary school, income taxes ... you get the picture. At this point, even the relatively modest $60 annual tax increase the $500 levy would mean for the owner of a property valued at $100,000 begins to feel like piling on.

The board members realized that and took pains to keep the increase within reason. That must have been tough to do when they see that the average levy in area school districts is about $1,300 per student. With that in mind, $885 looks like a bargain, and the board emphasized it wanted to strike a balance between more taxes and more cuts.

But few people are able to delude themselves that there are any bargains to be had in any sector of the economy right now. That's one reason why the Tea Party crowd has been able to gain a solid foothold among citizens. Many people would just be happy with fair value at a time when backsliding seems to be the norm.

Morris Area district voters have been supportive of school levies in the past, and there's been no indication so far that they won't do so again in November. But even "real money" now may prove to be nothing more than a finger in the dike a few years from now.