12/19/2013 12:41:00 PM With two directors opposed; Board uses new levy powers
by DENISE MARTIN
The North Branch School Board had an audience of about 75 people last week, most of whom were sticking around after a send-off reception for Chair Kim Salo. Salo was approaching her 15th year in office when she decided to resign for personal reasons the end of this month. Several people spoke last week commending her for her exhaustive work both on the Board, at district events and as a school district booster within the community.
Then it was back to business and the pay-2014 levy debate ensued, passing 4-2. Two of the six Board members argued against authorizing a $300 per pupil revenue hike and Location Equity Revenues ($200 per pupil) for next school year. The state legislature created Location Equity Revenue in its last session that provides state aid for expenses having to do with a district location--and also granted school boards the ability to collect up to $300 additional local levy per pupil unit. This is new power for school boards, which until now had to have any non-state funding approved in a local referendum.
Board member Randy Westby said he shouldn’t be making this decision. He said North Branch referendum ballots were defeated and the people have spoken. This authorization was just the state legislature passing the buck on the revenue dilemma, he complained. Jay Falk also said he “vehemently opposes” this. “We’re telling our citizens we can now use the strong arm of the state legislature to get the money we couldn’t get through a referendum.” Salo looked at it differently. She explained that the district would be passing up a terrific opportunity to leverage state aid or “equalization” being provided through this new legislation. North Branch will be getting more money than was sought in the last referendum at less cost to local property taxpayers.
“This could be the first year we aren’t talking about cutting...it (last successful local levy vote) was 15 years ago...we’ve waited way too long,” Salo argued. Board member Tim MacMillan also noted levying is not his ideal option, “But it’s the one that’s been given us.” He said equitable state funding of schools has never been achieved, but this new shared state-local revenue stream is the best way to make North Branch student futures brighter. Vice Chair Kirby Ekstrom said he is elected and if residents don’t support this they can vote for somebody else. “The way I look at it voters do have a voice.”
The action means North Branch general education revenue per pupil will increase. North Branch is at $5,390 and the state average is $6,350. Many districts with a more diverse tax base and higher property valuation can raise much more money locally than North Branch is able to and these are in the top one percent of spending and closer to $7,000 per pupil. (Multiple dedicated funds support educating a pupil unit in Minnesota and we cite only general education spending. Transportation, food service, health, safety, etc. are additional funding.) The district finance director reminded the Board that the levy for pay 2013 was down from 2012 by 8.5 percent. This new levy is only up from 2012 by 1.5 percent. But, if you just compare it to last year’s, it will read as a hike of 11 percent.
Vacant seat On the matter of filling Salo’s seat the Board decided unanimously to appoint. Board members will be free to nominate candidates at an upcoming meeting and there will be a majority vote to seat one. Board members want the new member to be able to participate in state school board association trainings offered the first part of the year, and get up-to-speed in time for budget decisions in March. If you wish your name to be considered talk with a school board member or e mail them through the website. There is no “application” process being pursued and no “interviews” were desired by the Board. The seat is to be filled as expeditiously as possible.