By Starrla Cray
DELANO, MN With the expiration of Delano School District’s current operating levy looming at the end of the 2012-13 school year, school officials are testing the waters to see what level of voter-approved funding would be best for the future.
“You may not agree with school funding, or you may totally support it, but we want to make sure we’re getting the facts out there,” School Board Chair Peter Brasket during a meeting Tuesday.
Anyone who missed the levy meeting can go to the next one, scheduled for Thursday, March 24 at 7 p.m. in the Delano Middle School Auditorium.
During Tuesday’s session, the school board and more than 20 audience members exchanged input on future funding.
“We don’t want to ask for more than we need,” one school board member said. “The community really does have a voice in helping to determine what we’ll be able to fund.”
If voters choose to renew the current operating levy of $426 per pupil, an estimated $3,607,000 in cuts will need to be made by June 2015, in order for the district to maintain a 9 percent fund balance.
At $426, Delano is significantly below the state average operating levy of $950 for taxes payable in 2010.
The average cost-per-pupil is also lower than average in Delano. For fiscal year 2009, it was $8,204, compared to the state average of $10,639.
“At $8,204 per kid, we’re delivering about as cost effective of education as you’ll find in the state of Minnesota,” Brasket said.
The bordering districts of Rockford, Buffalo-Hanover-Montrose, Watertown-Mayer, Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted, and Wayzata all have cost-per-pupil figures that are below the state average, but above Delano.
In Westonka and Orono, the schools have higher than average costs per pupil.
“We’ve been enjoying a pretty good return on our educational investment,” Brasket said, explaining that although Delano’s cost per pupil is lower than many schools, student achievement has remained high.
Delano’s average ACT score in 2010 was 24.2, compared to the state average of 22.7.
For the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment (MCA-II) tests in 2010, the state average was 66 percent proficient in math and 72 percent proficient in reading. Delano’s proficiency was about 85 percent in both subjects.
“What I think is amazing is what we do with that $8,200 compared to what some of the other schools do,” Board Member Carolyn Milano said.
As costs rise, the existing $426 per pupil levy won’t stretch as far, according to the school board.
There is also uncertainty and inequity surrounding state and federal funding.
“There’s an alarming disparity amongst our state funding, because we’re a lower property wealth district,” Milano said. “We don’t have the base, so it takes us more effort to raise the money and we don’t raise as much. We’re paying more for less, and it’s really unfair.”
Although Delano isn’t the wealthiest district, it’s also not the poorest, which can make for other inequities.
“The state financing laws are so convoluted,” Brasket said, explaining that school districts with a high poverty level receive extra funding.
If an operating levy of $950 per pupil were to be implemented, the net tax increase over 2010 for a $100,000 home would be $61. A $1,050 per pupil levy would result in a tax increase of $82.
The school board recognized the difficulty some households would have in paying the extra cost, but they also expressed concern over increasing class sizes or decreasing student opportunities.
“We know how hard it is,” Brasket said. “If you can see how we can not increase levy and still keep class sizes same, we welcome ideas.”
Class sizes in 2011-12 are projected between 21 and 28 students.
“If you’re looking for a personal opinion, I don’t want to see any cuts,” said one audience member, who has two children in the Delano School District. “I don’t want to see their class sizes get larger.”
He also said that his wife works in the school district, and he doesn’t want to see her salary cut, either.
For fiscal year 2010, Delano School District’s salaries, wages, and employee benefits totaled $14,621,267, accounting for about 76 percent of the general fund expenditures.
Five or 10 years?
In addition to the levy amount, the length of the potential levy also needs to be determined.
The board is currently considering either a five-year or 10-year time frame.
“We might have a better chance at passing five years,” Brasket said.
However, it is easier for the board to plan for the future if there is a 10-year levy in place, board members added.
Milano said she thinks it’s important for the public to consider the impact the levy would have on the future of Delano’s public education.
“I just think we have an obligation to these kids,” she said.