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School board begins mulling over levy options

By Tom Larson

Sun Tribune

There's no question that Morris Area School District voters will be asked to renew an operating levy that will expire this year. The decision facing the district School Board is how much to ask for, and how to ask for it.

The board met in a special session on Monday to take stock of the issue. In addition, the board made several families happy regarding their request for a section of every other day kindergarten, at least for one year.

The board took no action on the levy issue but is expected to begin addressing it in earnest at its June 21 regular meeting. The board did, however, vote unanimously to approve funding 4.5 sections of kindergarten next year, including a section for seven students who will attend every other day.

Families approached the board last month to request that it continue to offer a section of every other day kindergarten. The board also considered keeping all kindergartners in four every day sections with the alternate day students integrating into those classes, or increasing class sizes and having almost 20 kids in three every day sections while the seven alternate day students had their own section.

The board did say that the plan to fund 4.5 sections might last for this year only. The board consensus was that seven is too small a number to justify a separate section and that uncertainty about enrollment and state funding might make the plan unaffordable in the future.

The district heard from levy expert Mike Hoheisal, of Northland Securities, Hoheisal presented a PowerPoint detailing the district's past and present levies. The district currently has two levies totaling $686 per student.

The district has authority, under a 10-year operating levy passed in November 2000, to tax for about $301 per pupil. It expires in November and the district stands to lose about $280,000 in revenue in the 2011-2012 school year if voters reject renewing it.

Briefly, here's the situation facing district voters:

*District taxpayers currently are paying to add $686 per student to state funding and other revenue. A $385 per student levy, which expires in 2016, was approved in a November 2005 referendum, and the $301 per student is what remains from the November 2000 referendum.

*If voters approved a measure to renew the $301 per student levy, their tax bills would not increase over what they have been paying. However, because of expected declines in enrollment, just renewing the 2000 levy would leave the district short revenue in 2012 of about $16,000 compared to 2011 estimates.

*If $200 were added to the $301 renewal amount, the district would levy taxpayers for $501 per student beginning in 2011 for a total levy - when combined with the $385 levy of 2005 -- of $886 per student. That is estimated to increase district revenue by almost $174,000 in 2012 over the 2011 revenue estimate.

*Last year, a district taxpayer owning property with a market value of $100,000 paid $144 to pay for the two levies - no other school-related taxes are included in that figure. If taxpayers voted down a renewal of the 2000 levy, their tax bill for the levies would drop to about $82 per year. The taxes for the levies would be $140 if voters renew the 2000 levy. If $200 is added to the renewal amount, the tax bill for the levies would increase to $199.

*Rather than boiling the referendum down to one question, the district could put two or three questions on the ballot to give voters optional levy plans. The number of years authorized and whether to include an inflationary factor also could be put to a vote.

The district will be refining its figures as it studies referendum issues and will be seeking updated information about the direction of state funding in coming years, Superintendent Scott Monson said.

The board has an Aug. 20 deadline to determine if a levy question will be put on the November election ballot. In preparation for the 2005 levy, a "vote yes" committee - which can't be affiliated with the district - was formed to push for approval. At its next meeting, the board is expected to discuss strategies it is allowed to use to get the public comprehensive information about the request and the implications of voting results, Monson said.