Duluth school levy to go to taxpayersThe Duluth School Board chose Tuesday night not to impose a $300 per pupil levy on property taxpayers and to instead ask for more classroom-related money via a November referendum.
By: Jana Hollingsworth, Duluth News Tribune
The Duluth School Board chose Tuesday night not to impose a $300 per pupil levy on property taxpayers and to instead ask for more classroom-related money via a November referendum.
It also decided to levy $212 per pupil using authority given to larger school districts because of their higher costs for services than smaller districts. There is no legal option for putting that special levy to a public vote.
The board voted, 5-1, against using its authority on the $300 levy. Member Judy Seliga-Punyko was the lone member who wanted to use the authority, and member Mary Cameron was absent. Member Art Johnston abstained from the referendum measure, which will put two questions to voters. He had made a motion to remove the second question, which failed.
Member Mike Miernicki said that despite the new ability to tax without a vote, he preferred to go straight to voters.
“I’m going to go with hope,” he said. “I am hoping voters will see what we need and give us this vote. I am not comfortable at all with this board-
Seliga-Punyko cited other city government entities that tax citizens without votes, and lamented the cuts to come if voters reject a referendum and new state aid, meant to be awarded to the district if it has a levy of a certain amount, is denied.
“I do not want to cut $7 million,” she said, noting cuts could include full programs and athletics and lead to classrooms with more than 50 students. “The best interest of our students is No. 1.”
The first question on the ballot will ask for $595.78 per pupil and a second will ask for an additional $200 per pupil, translating to $1.8 million more, or a $45.36 increase a year for the owner of a $150,000 home.
If voters approve the first question, no taxes will be raised beyond what’s paid in the current operating levy, which expires next summer. That new levy would generate $4.4 million, which is the same as the current levy, plus $1.1 million in additional state aid. The levy would remain in place for five years.
If the second question is approved, it would raise taxes beyond current levels.
In the first scenario, taxpayers wouldn’t be paying $595.78 plus $212. The $595.78 includes the $212 tax and legally must be on the ballot.
If the referendum were to fail, the district still would levy the $212 per pupil but would lose its current operating levy and the $1.1 million in state aid. The $212 levy would generate $1.9 million, or about $2.5 million less than the current levy generates.
The state’s rationale behind the $300 board-approved levy was to reduce the gap in funding among school districts, Tom Melcher, director of school finance for the Minnesota Department of Education, said in a phone interview.
“We have about 10 percent of school districts that don’t have a referendum levy at all,” he said. “By providing board-approved authority up to $300 that will help narrow the funding gap between the highest-spending districts and the lowest-spending districts across the state.”
As for the $212 amount, that was authorized by the state for metro districts, (which receive $424 per pupil) and larger outstate districts (which receive $212) because they tend to have higher costs of delivering educational services than smaller districts, Melcher said.
Johnston said the inclusion of the $212 tax is confusing, and would confuse voters enough to defeat a referendum.
Board Chairman Tom Kasper, referencing the 2007 School Board’s approval of the district’s long-range facilities plan without voter approval, said the board’s move Tuesday was a risk, “but because of what happened in the past we need to give responsibility back to the taxpayers of ISD 709.”
School Board candidates Joshua Bixby, Harry Welty and Loren Martell spoke during the public comment period each asking the board to go directly to voters, not accepting any new taxing authority from the state.
“I understand the risk,” Martell said. “People have long memories in this town. I’m continually amazed what people still bring up, still seething with anger over what happened in this building 40 years ago.”
Tom Albright, a member of a Duluth operating levy campaign, asked the board to move forward on a path that doesn’t just “maintain status quo but truly addresses concerns.”
New operating levy money is said to be needed for more teachers to lower class sizes and for new curriculum. The passage of the first question would be enough of an increase to address immediate concerns, but the passage of a second question, Superintendent Bill Gronseth has said, would go much further in lowering class sizes and doing more innovative work in narrowing the achievement gap and improving the graduation rate.