By Starrla Cray
HOWARD LAKE, WAVERLY, WINSTED, MN With the Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted levy election only two weeks away, the three questions on the ballot have many voters asking questions of their own.
To help address these issues, the public is encouraged to attend a community informational levy meeting Thursday, Oct. 29 at 6:30 p.m. at the high school commons.
At the school board meeting Oct. 12, board members discussed one of the common issues they are hearing with the poor economy, how can the school expect taxpayers to vote for an increase?
“We failed the last time we asked for a levy, and now, the unemployment rate is substantially higher,” board member Michelle Heuer said.
Like the rest of the US, many people who live in the Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted School District are facing tough financial times, and pay cuts, job losses, and reduced work hours are becoming commonplace.
According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 8.6 percent of Wright County residents were unemployed in August. In McLeod County, the numbers weren’t much better, with 8.5 percent unemployed.
“In tough economic times, the one thing we want to be able to sustain is our education,” Superintendent Brad Sellner said.
“A good school district helps increase the value of the community and the value of the homes,” board member Dan Schaible added. “We’re actually helping them in the long run.”
The first question voters will see at the Tuesday, Nov. 3 election proposes to extend the district’s current $500-per-pupil levy for 10 years. This is an existing levy that the district is asking to renew, and it doesn’t result in an increase in taxes.
If this question passes, annual taxes for a $100,000 home would decrease by $2, because the district’s tax base is spread over more people than in previous years.
The second question proposes adding an inflationary rate to question one, and can only pass if the first question passes.
“By putting the inflationary factor on there, it’s one way for us to keep up with increases in fuel and other expenses that happen on an annual basis,” board member Al Doering said during a presentation to the Waverly City Council Oct. 13.
The third question proposes taking away the existing $50-per-student levy and replacing it with a $150-per-student levy. The existing levy expires in 2013. If the new $150 levy passes, it would have a five-year term.
Why schools have levies
School board member Jamie Weich said she is often asked, “Why do school districts depend on operating levies?”
“My answer to that question is that basic state education funding has not kept up with the increasing cost of running a school district,” Weich stated.
State funding increases are projected at zero percent this year, she noted.
“To balance annual budgets and make ends meet, districts have three choices cut student programs and staff each year, reduce fund balances, or ask local taxpayers for additional support,” Weich added.
“The state and federal governments continue to add programs and requirements, but they don’t fund it,” Doering said.
Public schools have many unfunded mandates, and expenses that the school board doesn’t control, Waverly City Council member Connie Holmes said.
Doering agreed, giving the example of HLWW’s Title 1 budget, which is at about $2 million. The government has specific rules on how this money can be spent, but doesn’t completely fund the program.
“At first, it was 100 percent funded by the government, and now, it’s only 40 percent,” Doering said.
Open enrollment issues
Open enrollment has also been an issue for HLWW. This year, 26 students who had open enrolled out of the school district chose to come back, but there are still about 300 students who open enroll to other districts.
Doering said that for each student the district loses, that means about $6,000 less in state aid.
In the past, some students chose other school districts because they found HLWW’s facilities to be lacking, Doering said.
“That’s not the case anymore,” he said. “We’ve had people tell us they’re thinking about bringing their kids back.”
In order to get back those students, however, Doering said the school needs to maintain its current programs.
“The basics aren’t really the only reason we send our kids to school,” he said. “People do want those elective courses and those college prep courses.”
If the levy fails, about $400,000 in cuts will need to be made next year. If it fails again the second year, another $600,000 will have to be chopped.
“We already operate very thin,” said Doering, who has been on the school board eight years. “I can’t think of a year that we didn’t cut something.”
“The upcoming levy is replacing money that has, or is set to, expire,” Weich noted.
“We’ve been tightening our belts for a long time,” Doering said. “I think everyone realizes, good times don’t last for very long. Even if all the levy questions pass, we’ll keep the belts tight.”