Fall levy vote unlikely for Lakeville schools

School Board deadlocked, faces Sept. 8 deadline for 2009 referendum; levy question near certainty in 2010

by Derrick Williams
Thisweek Newspapers

Thought the public was split on the idea of the Lakeville Area School District asking for more property tax levy dollars?

So is Lakeville’s School Board.

With a Sept. 8 deadline on whether to hold a fall referendum quickly approaching, Lakeville’s six member School Board is split on the idea, but broached the topic during it’s Aug. 25 meeting.

Considering the community narrowly defeated one of the most recent referendums by a slim, 12-vote margin in 2007, it shouldn’t be a surprise there isn’t consensus.

“I would hope we would be better prepared to (have a referendum) at this time, but I don’t think we’re there,” said Director Roz Peterson. “There are just too many questions. We can’t provide the information (voters) will need.”

Labor negotiations with the teacher’s union, fund balance levels, stimulus monies and left over cash from Lakeville South High School’s construction bonds are still in the air and not likely to be pinned down before an election.

Peterson, and Directors Bob Erickson and Michelle Volk are all against going to the community for more dollars at this time.

Asking for more tax dollars in a recession is also a factor for some.

“It’s really a matter of understanding that $240 a year might just
still be a little bit tight for some of the pocketbooks of this
district,” Volk said.

At a work session on Aug. 24, district staff provided the board with
information on what kind of referendum would be needed in order to
maintain a 5 percent fund balance through 2014.

It was estimated by staff that a $400 per pupil levy increase would
provide $5 million. Renewal of an existing $250 per pupil levy that
provides $3 million and is set to expire in 2010 would also need voter
approval.

While the levy renewal wouldn’t increase property taxes since it’s
already on tax rolls, the new $400 per pupil levy would amount to a
$240 yearly increase on the “average home” in Lakeville, which the
district estimates to be $300,000.

Without new levy dollars, the district is certain to face a nearly $5 million budget shortfall for the 2010-2011 school year.

In the past, the school district has made adjustments to the budget by
raising fees or making cuts rather than borrowing to offset deficits.

In the last four years, the district has trimmed more than $15 million.

Adding another $5 million, and making more than $20 million in cuts
over four years is hard for some School Board members to digest.

“I’m very concerned. We can only go so many years with cutting programs
and eliminating opportunities for our students,” said Director Kathy
Lewis.

Don Sinner, president of the teacher’s union, Education Minnesota
Lakeville, said failure to pass a levy increase in the fall will likely
lead to hikes in class sizes to the detriment of student achievement.

“It is short sighted to view a tax statement today,” Sinner said. “We
are all responsible for providing a public education. (Without a levy)
class sizes will increase, and individualized student attention will
decrease. Programs will be cut and opportunities will be lost.”
Erickson disagreed, saying the district could borrow money to stem the tide of cuts without a referendum.

As it stands, Lakeville’s schools receive less funding than comparable
schools not only south of the river, but throughout the entire metro
area.

According to the district, Lakeville currently spends nearly $1,200
less per student than state averages and ranks 43 out of 48 metro
school districts in terms of spending.

Lewis as well as Directors Judy Keliher and Jim Skelly are in favor of holding a referendum this fall.

“Will Lakeville residents support this — support (this) with their
vote? The School Board can’t answer that question,” Skelly said. “All
we can do is ask, and I support asking.”

Keliher said the board will have to make a decision on a referendum by
Sept. 11, but the next board meeting is Sept. 8, and likely a more
realistic deadline for a final decision.

With that date looming, most board members aren’t optimistic about the chances of something changing.

“We’re just not going to know anything before people would have to vote,” Peterson said.

The board, despite the deadlock is trying to remain optimistic.

“Dollars or not, levy or not, we still got to educate our children,” Lewis said.

E-mail Derrick Williams at: lakeville.thisweek@ecm-inc.com

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