Computers, busses among BL School needs [UPDATED]Published 11:57am Tuesday, October 23, 2012 Updated 11:57am Tuesday, October 23, 2012
An aging transportation system, deteriorating roof and outdated technology are some of the reasons the Battle Lake School District 542 seeks taxpayer support this election season.
During this busy presidential election year, Battle Lake Independent School District 542 is the only district in Otter Tail County holding an operating levy referendum. The Battle Lake School District requested taxpayer support in last year’s election, but the referendum did not pass. The district has already cut back programs and staff, and fears a serious impact to the quality of education if the levies are not passed, according to Superintendent Jeff Drake.
“The information we received after the election last fall from those that did not support the levy focused on three concerns,” Drake said. “The duration of the levy was too long, the tax impact was too high, and seasonal property was not taxed.”
District officials sharpened their pencils, and have come up with a new proposal to address all of three of the concerns. Voters will be asked to consider a revised capital projects levy, as well as two operating levies.
Funds from the capital projects levy, question one on the ballot, would be used to update the districts school bus and van fleet, ensure funds are available for roof replacement, and update classroom technology and curricula.
“Seven out of our 19 buses and vans would have failed the state inspection last June,” according to Drake. Nine of 14 of the district’s busses will be over 10 years old in 2013, with over half having more than 170,000 miles.
The district is also concerned about not having funds in place for aging building roofs. Approximately $55,000 per year in each of the next eight years needs to be set aside for anticipated roof replacement.
95 percent of the computers in the school are between six and 12 years old, and the district has not been able to adopt new curricula for two years.
The capital projects levy would generate approximately $275,000 in revenue per year for 8 years and impacts all property owners in the district.
Two operating levies will be asked of taxpayers to maintain current programs and restore some of what has been cut.
Question two on the ballot is an operations levy that would maintain current programs and services in the district. $400 per pupil would be assessed, garnering approximately $200,000 per year for five years.
Question three on the ballot is an operations levy that would restore some of the cuts that have already taken place in areas such as art, music, an elementary instructor position and the summer agriculture program. $95 per pupil would be assessed, generating an estimated $50,000 per year for five years. Question three cannot pass unless question two also passes.
There are several reasons for the district’s shortfall. Since 2003 increases in state aid to schools has fallen considerably short of inflation. Due to the state’s budget problems, schools are currently only receiving about 60 percent of the money they are supposed to receive to provide students with an education. This has created significant cash flow issues for many districts.
Schools are mandated to provide specific services, but receive inadequate funds to do so. Special education costs alone equal a $546 million shortfall across Minnesota school districts each year. For small, rural schools like Battle Lake, this amounts to a shortage of approximately $440 per district student annually.
School budgets are based on enrollment, and Battle Lake has seen its enrollment drop from a high of approximately 545 students to a projected enrollment of 448 for the 2012-2013 school year.
Approximately 90 percent of communities in Minnesota have passed levies to support their local schools. The current state average is $899 per pupil. Battle Lake presently receives $0 from levies. The last levy that was passed for Battle Lake was in 1992 for five years at $297 per student.
If the capital projects levy is approved, property taxes will increase on all property within the district. If voters approve the operating levy questions, seasonal recreational property is not affected and taxes on farms are based on the value of the house, garage and one acre.
As an example, a residential homestead with an estimated market value of $175,000 would pay approximately $35 if the capital levy passes, and $104 if both operating referendums pass, for a total of $139.
Commercial and industrial properties are taxed at a higher rate. Keith Baldwin, owner of Barter Town in Battle Lake, does not have any children or grandchildren attending school in the district. “I will be voting for the tax levies because education is the foundation of our community,” stated Baldwin. “It’s the right thing to do for our kids, and their future.”
The district has made a series of budget reductions to address deficit spending, reducing expenses by $850,000 between 2008 and 2013.
If the capital levy does not pass, funds to address roof and transportation issues will have to come from additional reductions to programs and positions. The impact will include larger class sizes in elementary and high school, fewer elective options and loss of departments or reduction to part-time contracts.
Drake said he is concerned the district will lose strong employees who leave for full time work: “In addition to losing committed staff, we will be unable to replace outdated textbooks and be unable to sustain our commitment to technology.”
The Battle Lake Public School system has established an excellent reputation for high quality instruction. In recent years, the district has received numerous awards including Minnesota Department of Education Reward School 2012, US Department of Education National Blue Ribbon School 2011 and is listed as a “Best High School” by US News and World Report.
“While we offer a very high quality education, we are making every effort to do so as cost-effectively as possible,” Drake said. “Our district will maintain a philosophy of getting the most from the money our tax payers have entrusted to us.
“Battle Lake has always shown great pride and commitment to its children and its school. We appreciate the voters considering these important issues.”
By Darla Ellingson