October 8, 2009 at 7:38 a.m.

North Branch voters will decide financial fate of school district

North Branch voters will decide financial fate of school district
North Branch voters will decide financial fate of school district

A second public informational meeting about the upcoming North Branch School District ballot questions is taking place October 19. This meeting will be at Sunrise River School, starting at 6 p.m.

The district also hosted an informational forum in mid-September, at the high school.

North Branch school officials are hoping local voters go to the polls November 3. The district will make voting simpler for those who need to vote absentee. Call the district offices at 674-1000 and ask for an application for an absentee ballot. You will get all the materials needed, including a return envelope.

The ballot

North Branch School Dist. voters are considering what is called an "excess levy." This is a local tax to enhance revenues, and is authorized based on a per pupil amount. North Branch seeks $335 per pupil in the first ballot question and $140 per pupil in a second question.

Two ballot issues allow the district to dedicate monies to specific needs.

The $335 is planned to supplement general spending to improve finances, so the district does not have to make cuts to balance budgets again.

The School Board has directed that the $140 be put towards so-called STEM programming, science, technology, engineering and vocational instruction and math. Examples of how this would be spent include college credit science classes at the North Branch High School. Elementary aged gifted and talented programs could be created.

The state provides a funding stream on a per-pupil formula, which makes up 72 percent of North Branch revenues, according to district informational packets. Local property taxes are 16 percent of the district revenues.

The state legislature allows school to ask voters to approve or reject increasing the local contribution. The authority is granted for only five years, at which time voters "reauthorize" this levy for it to remain in effect.

North Branch is in a tiny group of Minnesota School Districts (less than 10 percent) that does not have this excess levy authority.

Levies currently in place in other districts range from almost $2,000 extra per pupil funding in the Orono District, to Chisago Lakes Area Public Schools, which has an excess levy generating about $400 per pupil. Forest Lake has a local levy bringing in about $700 in addition to basic per pupil state aid.

Why local levy?

According to a League of Rural Voters study-- residents outside the metro area saw large increases in property taxes in the years 2003 through 2007. The increases were attributed to education in another study done by the Citizens League.

The driving force behind this growth was that the state began to reduce education aid; motivating school districts to go to local taxpayers.

In the years starting with, (and since) 2002-2003 public school revenue decreased by $700 million.

According to the study by the Rural Voters League analyzing per pupil funding; when revenue is spread across the whole state, including all local excess levies that are in effect-- revenues for education budgets are still $181 (per pupil) less than revenue levels pre-2002.

School enrollments have declined, and indeed, North Branch is experiencing stagnant growth in its district student enrollment. But, the Citizens League report points out the enrollment numbers are down 1.4 percent statewide, while revenue is down nearly 10 percent. See chart.


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