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Duluth School Board debates tapping no-vote operating levy

The Duluth School Board is debating whether to impose a new operating levy on taxpayers without a vote as allowed by new legislation or have a traditional referendum and risk losing state incentives if it fails -- or do both.

The Duluth School Board is debating whether to impose a new operating levy on taxpayers without a vote as allowed by new legislation or have a traditional referendum and risk losing state incentives if it fails -- or do both.

The new education funding plan approved by the 2013 Legislature put a twist on operating levy decisions for many school districts. It allows districts to levy taxes for education revenue without a vote up to a certain amount. Boards that approve that move receive equalization aid from the state. In Duluth's case, it would potentially receive $1.1 million.

Districts also can access that aid by passing a voter-approved levy, but if the levy fails and the board hasn't approved the no-vote levy, the equalization aid goes away.

The School Board must decide if it will 1) approve a $300 per-pupil levy that doesn't require a vote, 2) implement an additional $212 no-vote levy for its status as a large non-metro district, 3) ask voters for more money in the November election or 4) do some combination of the three, including all three.

The state has changed how it counts students, so a new levy amount won't be comparable to the current amount. The current levy of $365 per "pupil unit," which brings in $4.4 million, expires in June. None of the options the board is currently considering -- even if it went for all three levies -- would raise local operating levy taxes from current levels, but several could raise total revenues because they tap into the new state aid.

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The board was presented with several of those scenarios at a committee of the whole meeting Tuesday. Superintendent Bill Gronseth will recommend one to the board at its business committee meeting Aug. 12. The board will vote on the options Aug. 20.

Five of the eight scenarios would cause dramatic to slight decreases in taxes and three would keep the level the same. Because of the possible state aid, the district stands to gain up to $1.1 million in revenue. Several of the scenarios show the district losing education revenue.

Gronseth said he talked to several community groups and most favored an increase in an operating levy. The request he'll recommend would result in a flat or smaller operating levy but a modest increase in revenue thanks to the state equalization aid, he said in an earlier interview.

"It wouldn't be a windfall," Gronseth said of the best possible situation. "Recommendations would be modest improvements to class size. We've been neglecting (curriculum) for quite a while. We started adopting new science and math and next year social studies. Those things need to take priority."

Board members were concerned about how confusing the legislation is, and how the ballot language might appear.

Member Art Johnston said the board shouldn't approve the $300 no-vote levy and instead go to voters.

"It looks like more taxation without representation," he said.

Member Mary Cameron said she wasn't in support of rejecting revenue, because of the chance of losing even more state aid.

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School Board candidate Loren Martell spoke during the public comment period and said he'd been out door-knocking for a month. A lot of distrust remains when it comes to the district and the board, he said, and it will be difficult to explain the new legislation.

"Everyone is going to have to put their heads together and you don't have much time to sell it," he said.

Related Topics: EDUCATIONSCHOOL BOARD
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