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Nevis residents question need for new operating levy

Nevis School District residents arriving for this week's information session on the proposed operating referendum questioned the need for a levy, given the district's solvency, and expressed opposition, due to the current state of the economy.

The district is proposing revoking the current operating levy of $126 per resident pupil and asking voters to authorize a $475 per resident pupil amount. This would be applicable for 10 years.

If the proposed levy is approved Nov. 2, property taxes will remain basically unchanged, at least initially. The district levy payable in 2011 has decreased $98,256 - 14 percent - from the 2010 amount.

Betsy Knoche of Ehlers arrived to present an overview of an operating referendum, noting she'd been surprised at the "high property values" in the district. Because of the "healthy property tax base," the district is not eligible for state aid in addition to the property tax levies.

Use of the funds can be the same as basic general education revenue - any operating or capital expenses.

Districts are relying more heavily each year on operating referendum revenue to fund basic educational programs, Knoche said.

Ninety percent of districts now receive referendum revenue. The projected average revenue is $847 per pupil unit in fiscal year 2011. Seventy-eight districts across the state are expected to ask taxpayers to renew or expand referendums.

Districts are increasingly relying on referendums because since 2002-03 the state general education revenue formula has not kept pace with inflation.

Per pupil allowance for the current year would need to increase by $425 to have kept pace with inflation, Knoche said. And the allowance for next year will not increase.

"The only options for districts to bridge the funding gap are to cut budgets or increase referendum revenue; most districts have done both," she said. If the levy is approved, property tax refunds and deferrals for senior citizens are applicable for those who qualify.

"How did you come up with $475?" Gordon Kath asked of the "nearly 300 percent increase."

"We looked at a lesser amount than the state average," board chair Ed Becker said. "This is an attempt to maintain small class sizes." He indicated the levy is a proactive approach, given the likelihood of cuts at the state level.

"Wouldn't it have been better to see if the state makes those cuts?" a resident questioned.

This gives the district the authority to levy, but we don't have to levy the $475 per pupil, superintendent Steve Rassier said.

"Taxes never go down," resident John Larson said. "I don't care what you say. The country and the state are in financial trouble." He expressed surprise at the small turnout (less than 10) given the economy.

"This is a retirement area," Larson said. "We all took a big hit. And it won't get better for a long time. We have to be fiscally responsible, right down to the schools. A lot of people won't be for this because of the economic situation."

"If this fails, will you have to make cuts?" a resident asked.

"No," Becker said, but indicated cuts may be needed if the Legislature trims funding.

"I'm not hearing a sense of urgency," Skip Gooch said, noting information sent to property owners on the referendum did not arrive until Oct. 19. "To get community support, you have to have people talking, community involvement. I still don't understand why the money is needed."

"This is a preemptive measure," Becker said.

"I see no looming crisis," Gooch said.

The Legislature has said it will maintain funding for schools, Kath said.

If the referendum doesn't pass, the existing $126 levy will remain in place until next year, Rassier said. "Then the money will disappear."

"I'd vote for $126," Kath said. If the state cuts funding, come back with a proposal to extend the $126 for 10 years, he suggested.

"We are asking for half the state average," Marv Vredenburg said of the $475 levy amount.

"The reality is, we will stay the same," Becker said, ostensibly referring to state funding not keeping pace with inflation.

"If this passes, I would hate to see teachers get a huge increase," Kath said. "The union is strong. That would really hurt if they got a huge raise."

Kath noted businesses don't increase prices in anticipation of what might happen next year.

"This district has traditionally been fiscally responsible," Becker said. "I see no will on the part of the board to give it away."