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196 school board opens the door for an operating levy

A final decision won't come for another couple of months, but the District 196 School Board has reserved the option to ask voters to approve an operating levy when they go to the polls in November.

Board members voted unanimously Monday to declare their intent to put a levy on the ballot. The vote was a reaction to a proposal in the state's Omnibus Education Bill that would require school districts to declare in advance whether they plan to ask voters for extra money. The bill has not yet been approved, but superintendent Jane Berenz said the district needs to keep its options open.

"We put this together so we have the option," Berenz said.

The vote came at the end of a meeting that also featured a look back at the district's finances over the past 10 years and a forecast that includes anticipated budget adjustments of $23 million in the 2014-15 school year and $19 million in the 2015-16 school year if the district does not ask for a new levy.

Those figures include the district using between $3 million and $9 million of its emergency fund balance. That would take the fund balance, the district's rainy day fund, down to the minimum level allowed by district policy.

The district's current $1,042-per-student operating levy expires in 2015. That figure is above the state average of $919 per student but below the $1,159 average among the 48 metropolitan school districts and the $1,214 of districts in the south suburban conference.

State law allows District 196 to ask for up to $1,666 per student in operating levy money.

Even with a bigger operating levy in place, the district will still likely face cuts. Finance director Jeff Solomon estimated that a successful levy in November would reduce budget adjustments to $6 million in the 2014-15 school year and to $18 million in 2015-16.

While the state of Minnesota has increased education funding in recent years, finance director Jeff Solomon said the district is getting less for its money than it did a decade ago.

"State funding for E-12 has not kept pace with inflation," he said.

The school board has until Aug. 23 to make a final decision on asking voters to approve an operating levy. Board members expect a lot of discussion between now and then.

"This is really the beginning of a big decision we've got as a board," chair Rob Duchscher said. "This is a time of year when people tend to tune out. We need you to tune in, provide us some feedback."