August 5, 2010 at 8:29 a.m.

North Branch School Board starts to finalize November levy ballot

North Branch School Board starts to finalize November levy ballot
North Branch School Board starts to finalize November levy ballot

The North Branch School Board met July 29 on the sole issue of how to formulate the ballot questions for this fall's school funding referendum and how much the district could ask voters to authorize. It took almost two hours to debate the best way to approach this. Board members also reviewed a survey taken of 250 North Branch student parents. (See sidebar story.)

Board member John White was absent; but the consensus was the November ballot should offer three questions. The levy approval would be for 10 years.

Board member Robert Jutz questioned if a levy lasting three or four years might be wiser. He said the new governor, whomever he or she is, might have success repairing the state education funding system that has left North Branch sinking at the bottom of the funding pool. "People may be thinking the state is heading into a changing era (politically)," Jutz offered.

Other Board members felt the longer the timeframe that any levy can be activated means less time and effort spent by the district going back to voters repeatedly to re-authorize the local levy.

Actual wording of the questions and number of words allowed on the ballot is described under state law, so exact question wording is being developed by staff.

The North Branch School Board will adopt the ballot at its August 12 regular meeting.

Timeframes are getting tight because the county auditor's office, which is responsible for ballots, needs all ballot language submitted for printing deadlines.

Generally what the North Branch Board agreed on is voters:

~ Will be asked in Question One to support a specific (an estimated $350 per pupil) tax amount just to maintain district programs and staff. On a $150,000 house this would require the property tax to increase $115 dollars. A $200,000 value home would contribute $153 annually.

The North Branch District finance director projects a shortfall of $1.5 million in this coming year, so whatever this authorization ballot question is calculated at -- it will be at least to generate that amount.

~ Question Two would reference tax dollars to minimize expected cuts in immediate years, based on existing state pupil funding.

The dollar amount of Question Two is also not exact yet, but very preliminary calculations show about $175 per pupil unit will suffice. It was explained that enrollment will affect this and the most up-to-date districtwide property tax capacity will be used.

The finance director estimates that the two questions combined, for longer term budget stability, and which would bring in $525 per pupil, will cost the $150,000 residential property $172 and the $200,000 homeowner $230 annually.

~ The third question would ask if voters would be willing to add locally-generated tax dollars of another $175 (per pupil) to the district budget to avoid longer term reductions in areas like sports, activities, arts and numbers of teaching staff (increasing class size.)

There was lots of discussion about forming an "audit group" comprised of citizens to track the expenditure of levy revenue. The community members would get information on who was hired, what was purchased, and report back to the community to ensure "credibility" in district spending.

Said Finance Director Randi Johnson, "There's a perception in the community that the last operating levy (years ago) didn't get applied the way we said it would."

Johnson was fully supportive of working with a watchdog group to track spending at the point the local levy is approved.

Jutz asked if there's a finalized budget scenario for the coming school year that offers specifics on what is facing the axe if revenues don't increase. Johnson said budget fundamentals are in place for the coming school year, but the mandatory audit of budget 2009-2010 won't be done for a couple of months yet, so there's no way to know exactly where balances were left last year.

She added that until annual enrollments are known (calculated in October 2010) the expected funding from the state, that is sent on a weighted formula of a "pupil unit" is not exact. The state funding formula sends more per high school pupil, for example, and a little less for each elementary-aged student.

Board member Jutz said he'd find it helpful to know what the district is looking at specifically as priority for cutting. Others felt voters look at that information as a threat, and it's better just to explain there will need to be expense reductions. Board member Jeanne Walz commented that North Branch District's "life is at stake," and the district should list the few program areas remaining that aren't mandated state and federal educational courses, such as arts, sports and electives.


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