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School board supports levy vote

Voters in Independent School District 196 will have a chance in November to decide whether they're willing to pay a little more to reduce the cuts needed in district schools.

There has been talk since the District 196 School Board started discussing cuts earlier this year that the district might ask voters to approve an operating levy this fall. Following a workshop meeting Monday that levy appears all but certain. The board will not vote on the ballot question, which would ask voters to support an additional $525 per student, until August. But there seemed to be little doubt among board members Monday that the levy should be on the ballot.

"I don't think we'd be doing our duty if we didn't ask the voters if they'd be willing to pay more to maintain services," board member Kevin Sampers said.

The $525 per student is the most the district could ask from voters. There was never any discussion about asking for less, and communication specialist Tony Taschner said in May any levy would likely be an all-or-nothing proposition. There has not been any discussion about how long the levy would last, but 10 years is the maximum term and finance director Jeff Solomon said Monday that is what districts typically ask for.

The bigger question Monday seemed to be how to tell voters about the levy. Solomon has said since early this year that even a successful levy will not solve financial issues he says are the result of anticipated cuts to state funding. Even with the voter-approved money the district might have to cut as much as $11.6 million from its budget.

That left board members wondering how to present a potential tax increase to voters when, even under the most optimistic forecast presented Monday, the district would have to cut $4.5 million next year and another $14.5 million the following year.

Part of answering that question will involve making an educated guess about what legislators will do next year. Board members considered scenarios Monday that included 5, 7.5 and 10 percent cuts to state funding and there was little consensus about which was most realistic. There was support for all three options, and superintendent Jane Berenz pointed out that some Minnesota districts still believe the state will not make any cuts to education funding. The state has not cut education funding in any of the past three years, but it has delayed some payments.

Board members did not settle on a definite number, but superintendent Jane Berenz said she would come back to board members with a recommendation that anticipates states cuts of between 5 and 7.5 percent.

The board will have a first reading of the proposed levy at its July 26 meeting and will take a final vote in August.