By Jennifer Kotila
With the vote for the school support levy set to take place Tuesday, Nov. 5, the last thing the Dassel-Cokato School Board needed to hear was that there were problems with the ballot question.
But that is exactly what occurred last week, and the board met for a special, emergency meeting Friday in order for Superintendent Jeff Powers to explain the issue.
After being contacted by a concerned citizen regarding the accuracy of the levy question a couple of weeks ago, Powers contacted Northland Securities to look more closely at the question.
Tuesday, Northland Securities conceded that it had misinterpreted the Location Equity Aid legislation, and the information the levy question was premised on was indeed wrong.
“We’ve been having conversations about the levy since last March,” Powers said. He noted the board had numerous conversations about money and how much is needed to continue current programming.
“To my tremendous dismay, all that conversation is now based on a levy question that is all wrong,” Powers said.
The board decided on a levy of $650 per pupil to maintain current programming, and the district has informed citizens that is the amount the district will be receiving once a levy passes.
All of the information citizens have been provided regarding a levy of $650 per pupil and its tax impact is accurate.
However, the question on the ballot is only asking citizens to approve a $438 per pupil levy, and should be asking them to approve the full $650 per pupil.
Therefore, if the levy were approved, the district would generate less money than intended.
How did this happen?
Due to legislation passed by the Minnesota legislature this year, the state will automatically levy the non-voter approved amount of $212 per pupil for districts such as DC.
Taking this into account, the board was advised by Northland Securities to ask citizens to approve a $438 per pupil levy, for a total of $650.
It was not understood by Northland Securities or the district that the $212 had to be included in the question on the ballot.
Due to the error, the total amount that may be levied on the local citizens in the years of 2016-23 if the ballot question is approved is $438 per pupil less than what the district said is needed to keep it functioning at the current capacity.
“How can you put a non-voter approved amount to a vote?” asked School Board Chair Kevin Bjork.
“I don’t know the real logic, which is one of the reasons I voted against [the tax bill],” said state representative Dean Urdahl, who was in attendance at the meeting.
“We have a complicated and convoluted way of funding schools,” Urdahl added, noting that, instead of simplifying things, the legislature has only made them more complicated.
Following the meeting, Urdahl was contacted again to answer why the non-voter approved amount of $212, which the state legislature agreed to automatically levy, would be included in a question asking for a voter approved levy.
After taking some time to research the answer, Urdahl explained that the $212 in location equity revenue has to be renewed by the legislature each year.
If it were not included in the voter-approved levy amount, and the state legislature decided not to renew it, school districts such as DC would be left with less funding than was needed.
By including it in the question for the voter-approved amount, the district will be able to levy for the full $650 if the state decided not to renew location equity revenue.
Although numerous people have been contacted about what to do, Powers said the bottom line is that the district is now in a spot where it is wrong.
It is too late to cancel the vote scheduled for Tuesday, or to change the question on the ballot, Powers said.
Given that, Powers laid out the options the district has after the vote takes place.
If the levy should pass with the current question on the ballot, the district could seek the assistance of Urdahl and other local legislators to fix the problem.
The district is in this situation due to a misinterpretation of the legislation that passed, and Powers noted the district’s intentions of having a full levy amount of $650 per student has been obvious and communicated to the citizens of DC.
Urdahl acknowledged he would do what he could, but that “nothing legislatively is a sure thing.”
The other option the district has if the levy passes is to ask its citizens to pass another levy that rescinds the levy for $438 per student, and asks for the intended $650 per student.
If the levy fails, the district can bring forth another levy asking for the full levy of $650 per student.
The blame game
“Everything that happened here is my responsibility, and I apologize to the board and to the citizens,” Powers added. “This problem shouldn’t be there.”
The board disagreed that the problem was Powers responsibility, pointing out that the district relies on the experts it hires to guide its decision-making.
“(Northland Securities) are specialists, and they didn’t even know,” School Board Member Tracy McConkey said.
School Board Member Mark Linder noted his disappointment that Northland Securities was not in attendance at the meeting.
Powers said the financial consultants offered to be there, but he didn’t feel it was necessary. “I can say that we have worked with Northland Securities for a long time, and they have always done very well for us,” Powers added.
Linder noted Northland Securities shouldn’t have offered to come, but should have just been there.
“Basically we have a complicated system that Northland Securities did not interpret properly,” Urdahl said.
“The experts were wrong, plain and simple,” McConkey added. “We were given a very poor opinion from the best experts we could find.”
Even the citizens in attendance at the meeting commended Powers for his willingness to take on the issues with the levy head-on rather than sweeping them under the rug.
“I would just like to say I do not blame you for any of this, but I know you have taken it on your shoulders,” said School Board Member Rebecca Clemen.