Public meeting on upcoming referendum lightly attended

By : 
SCOTT BESTUL
TRI-COUNTY RECORD

The new R-P school auditorium can hold 400 people, but only 20 showed up for the special school board meeting held Monday, Oct 1. The meeting’s intent was to give district residents information, and the ability to ask questions, about the operating referendum that will appear on the ballot during the November 6 general election.

But only a handful of district voters showed up on the cool, overcast evening. Included in the audience were five district employees and four R-P school board members. Supt. Ehler conducted the meeting, with help from Barbara Doyle, financial specialist for Ehlers Inc., a firm that has helped District 239 – and others across the state – crunch numbers and interpret information for operating referendums. Doyle has appeared at several recent R-P school board meetings to present referendum data.

As noted in previous coverage of the referendum, district voters will be asked in November to vote on two questions: 1) Whether to extend an operating referendum they approved in 2009; and 2) Whether to increase the amount of that levy to $100 per pupil. Supt. Ehler and Doyle both stressed, as they have before, that by approving the second option district voters would be approving a tax increase.

How much that increase would be was a focal point of Doyle’s presentation. In contrast to standard referendums, such as the one passed by district voters to build the new R-P school, operating referendums do not tax agricultural or recreational property. In essence, district residents would be taxed solely on the value of their residence (and up to one acre of surrounding land). “The average home in this district is valued at $138,000,” Doyle said as she presented a chart that showed estimated tax increases should voters approve Option Two. “The closest home value on this chart is $150,000. If voters approve (Option Two), the tax increase on that home would be $41 per year.” The lowest home value on Doyle’s chart was $50,000; the highest was $500,000. The tax increase for those extremes were $13 and $133, respectively.

Doyle also addressed the need for a referendum in the first place. “In 2009, district voters approved an operating referendum for $940.19 per pupil,” she said. “Today that amount is now worth $404.64 per pupil.” Doyle explained that several reasons exist for the decrease, including changes in the legislature that literally determine how children are counted in funding equations, funding for special education programs, and inflation. In short, the rate that district voters approved nearly a decade ago is worth less than half in today’s dollars. “If voters approve only Question One in November, it’s basically a break-even proposition,” she explained.

Audience questions were few. Resident Jim O’Donnell asked what inflationary index was used for calculating the numbers Ehlers Inc., presented. “We use Bureau of Labor statistics to formulate these reports,” Doyle replied. Vern Bunke asked Supt. Ehler how open enrollment students affect district finances. “They’ve been a very positive benefit for the district,” Supt. Ehler replied. “The last two years they’ve brought in close to a half-million dollars for us.

Bunke then asked “What are the projected uses of the money should voters approve the referendum?” Referendum dollars can be used to meet any of the district’s operating expenses, including supplies, technology, utilities, and staff salaries and benefits. Supt. Ehler replied, “I anticipate the ability to continue the programs that have been so successful and made the district a leader. We’ve expanded business, trade and career exploration classes,” he said. “The pendulum has kind of swung from a demand for students to obtain a four-year college degree and shifted to training at technical and colleges, and we’re not only meeting that need here, we’re one of the few schools doing so. We’re also expanding programs in the younger grades, and are able to keep class sizes relatively small.”

The meeting was adjourned informally at 7:15 p.m., with Supt. Ehler urging attendees to carry the factual info they obtained in this session to the public between now and November 6, when district voters will weigh in on the operating referendum.

For more information on referendum particulars and questions, visit the district website at r-pschools.com.