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District won't ask voters for school levy in 2009

By Tom Larson

Sun Tribune

Morris Area School District voters will not be asked to approve an operating levy this fall.

A consensus of the Morris Area School Board on Monday indicated that members want to wait until 2010 to ask voters to renew -- and possibly increase -- a levy that comes off the books after the 2011-2012 school year.

The district School Board discussed the issue earlier this summer and touched on it briefly Monday during its regular meeting at Morris City Council Chambers.

The question isn't whether to ask for the renewal but when.

The district currently levies residents for almost $687 per student. Voters in 2005 approved a 10-year levy of $385 per student, but a total of about $302 will be expiring in two years. If at least that much isn't renewed, the district can expect a revenue gap of more than $262,000, according to Superintendent Scott Monson.

Requesting a new levy only renews what taxpayers are paying now. A yes vote on a levy doesn't mean a tax increase unless the board asks voters to approve a measure for additional money over the $302 that will expire.

But board members Mark McNally and Dick Metzger stated they believed that the three months before the November 2009 elections was not enough time to mount an informational campaign for district voters.

"It's too short a time period to advance it at this point," Metzger said.

McNally said a committee could be formed to spearhead the levy campaign and that work should begin soon.

"I think there's some ground work that needs to be laid," McNally said.

But by waiting until the 2010 election, it will be in dire straits if the measure doesn't pass with voters.

In June, board member Lory Lemke, who advocated a 2009 levy vote, said, "It's just prudent to give ourselves two chances at it."

At that time, Monson also noted that research he has seen indicates that levy votes have a better chance of passing in off-year elections.

But McNally and board chairman Kurt Gartland, who was not at Monday's meeting, have said they would prefer ramping up voter education, preparing a solid argument and setting up for a one-time vote.

A resolution authorizing a levy vote would be needed by Sept. 11 if the district intended to put it on the November 2009 ballot.

In other district business:

• Todd Travis, of the Midwest Special Education Cooperative, told board members that the district would maximize its federal stimulus dollars for special education if the money were used to pay fringe benefits.

The district is expected to receive an estimated $111,000 of stimulus money for special education, Travis said, adding that the money also can be divided and spent over two years.

Since after two years, the funds run out, using the money to add programs will also add costs once the stimulus money is gone. If a district is receiving federal special education funds, it must continue those programs.

"You must maintain fiscal effort," Travis said. "If you spend $200,000 this year, you must spend $200,000 next year."

In that respect, the stimulus money is a "get out of jail free card," he said.

The stimulus money allows the district for two years to recoup special education fringe benefit money it wouldn't typically get back, Travis said.

• The district will contract with McDowell Agency of St. Paul to conduct background checks on potential employees and volunteers.

The cost is $41 per check, with the district paying $21 and the applicant paying $20.

McDowell Agency provides checks of driving records, employment verification, professional license verification, academic verification, credit reports, U.S. Federal Court records, terrorist and fugitive lists and alias fees.

The company was founded in 1984 and reportedly serves more than 900 clients.

The district's background check procedures will begin in October and will not be retroactive.

• The district will step up efforts to keep drivers from leaving vehicles unattended in fire lanes outside the main entrances to the high school and elementary school.

Yellow stripes have been painted on the pavement near the entrances, signs will be posted, and parents will be notified of the enforcement efforts. The School Resource Officer also will monitor the lanes.

The district wants to avoid ticketing vehicles, Monson said, adding that vehicles pulling up to pick up children are not considered in violation; the efforts are aimed at people who leave vehicles unattended.

• Monson's latest enrollment projections indicate the district's enrollment could grow by 42 students by the time classes begin in September.

At the end of the 2008-2009 school year, enrollment stood at 926 students. Early projections saw an increase of five students for 2009-2010. Figures Monson gave the board Monday project enrollment of 968 students.

The expected increase is due primarily to open enrollment students, Monson said.