School Board considers operative levy referendum options

By : 
GRETCHEN MENSINK LOVEJOY

Kingsland’s School Board dealt with various items during its workshop held Monday, Feb. 4, but old business — how to handle finding enough funds for an operating levy — garnered the most attention.

The board conferred by phone during the workshop with Mike Hoheisel of Baird, the firm that has been advising the board on how it might keep the district afloat and out of statutory operating debt, the condition in which the state commandeers control of the district’s finances and directs it to make reductions or changes to its operations to raise it out of debt. Hoheisel brought forward three operating levy options for the board’s consideration.

The district had held an operating referendum this past November to seek approval of a total $1,042 per pupil operating levy — with the current levy being $851.82, comprised of $427.82 in base operating funds and $424 in local option that expires in 2020 — meant to bring in an approximated additional $300,000 per year.  The referendum to increase the district’s per pupil amount failed, leaving the board to seek what its members have called a last-chance opportunity this year to hold an operating referendum to keep the district out of statutory operating debt and avoid having to reduce programs and lay off teaching staff. 

With the approaching 2020 deadline, district officials said they must act soon. There are several possibilities for an election in 2019. Residents in Fillmore County District 3 will be heading to the polls on either May 14 or Aug. 13, depending if there a primary election is needed, to replace Gary Peterson on the County Board. Another possible election date is Nov. 5.

Hoheisel outlined the three options of different amounts requested for an operating referendum. The district could seek a $614 operating levy increase this fall, as the $424 local option that was voted upon 10 years ago does not have to remain at that amount, garnering an estimated $317,086 in additional funds, resulting in a $106.15 tax increase on a $100,000 home.  Should the district seek a $714 operating option in addition to the $427.82 per pupil base amount, the district would raise $376,930 and that would mean $125.99 in new property taxes on a $100,000 home.  The board could also pose a question for $814 above and beyond the $427.82, raising $419,486 additional funds, which would cost $140.09 more in taxes on a $100,000 home. 

Hoheisel explained how the state funds districts’ operation and how that affects schools’ finances and taxpayers’ wallets. “The first tier of state aid…the state pays for 54 percent of the first $300.  Anything greater than $760 per kid, the state is not paying,” he told the board. 

Board members turned to Kingsland’s business manager, Amber Uhlenhake Herbrand, for input on what amount of local option operating levy might best benefit the district to make sure it is enough so the referendum, if passed, wouldn’t be just a short-term fix.

Uhlenhake Herbrand stated that she had to lay out the options in spreadsheet form so that the board could see everything, and the board agreed that that would be especially helpful, particularly because they need to make certain that they have done what is best for Kingsland’s students and not surpassed taxpayers’ tolerance threshold.

“What do you think will pass and benefit our kids?” board chair Jackie Horsman asked. “We’re down to the wire…this is a last ditch.” 

The board then compared the operating levies of similar and neighboring districts, observing that Kingsland’s levy isn’t as large as that of LeRoy-Ostrander’s or Hayfield’s, whose standings seem to be fueled by some of the same circumstances that Kingsland faces — declining enrollment and increased costs of educating students. 

The business manager will provide detailed information to the board members in the next few weeks to assist in their decision-making. 

Hecimovich then told the board that the annual resolution to reduce programs and staff has yet to be applied to any of the district’s departments because it is the time of year when teachers consider offers from other districts and make their intentions known to the districts they currently serve, meaning that the deficit that could be incurred by their continued employment here could be offset by their departure.  The superintendent added that several teachers who have served the district for most of their careers may be of retirement age and choose not to return next fall. 

“We figure it’s about a $60,000 deficit in unassigned funds, but we’re going to be looking at everything, and if we have any staff members apply elsewhere, we’ll talk about it at the March workshop,” he said.

Wykoff playground in flux

In another matter, Hecimovich updated the board on the district’s intended donation of a playground and baseball field to the city of Wykoff following the sale of the building itself to a private buyer.  He informed members that there apparently had been some misunderstanding in regard to who would foot the bill for surveying to reach a clear title on the land, as the donation could not go through without that work being done. 

“One of the concerns was that there wasn’t a clear title, and there were questions from the Wykoff City Council about the bill that was sent for surveying.  I went off the July 2 study session -- during which we had a member of the City Council present — that it would be prudent if the city picks up the cost of surveying, Hecimovich said. “Things came to a halt at Wykoff’s City Council…we’re not going to pay $2,000 to give something away because it’s enough that we already spent $80,000 to abate asbestos to sell a building there for less than that.” 

Horsman inquired, “If they don’t want to pay for the survey costs, are we at the point where we put it up for sale?” 

Hecimovich didn’t have an immediate answer to Horsman’s question, but he reiterated the stipulation attached to the properties.  “Every parcel we’ve parted with cannot be used for a school — we have a non-compete clause in the contract,” he said.

Common calendar

The board went on to discuss the 2019-2020 school calendar, with few surprises involved.

“In the past, we’ve typically developed a school year calendar, tried to negotiate a happy outcome, but since we’ve become members of SMEC (Southern Minnesota Education Consortium), we’re sharing kids all the way to Lyle, and it’s getting to the point where we need to find a common calendar,” Hecimovich stated. “There are only a few changes in this calendar — we have 175 student days, 183 teacher days, and there are five flex days in there for snow days.  There are additional days in the calendar in case we have a wild winter, but if there aren’t enough, we’ll have to bring the kids back in June.” 

The superintendent remarked that while returning in June isn’t a favorable solution to meeting the requirements for student calendar days, it will accomplish what is necessary.

‘Apathy’ problematic

Hecimovich also spoke of how there seems to be apathy among students and parents as related to student achievement.  “We’re struggling with apathy,” he said. “The kids don’t seem to be concerned about getting their work done, and parents don’t seem to be getting involved, either.  Parents are not knocking on the door asking, ‘Why aren’t Johnny and Susie doing well?’” 

Horsman suggested that it might be because students are so stretched between their classes, extracurricular activities and jobs than they might have been just a few years ago, leaving them to balance more.

“The apathy is so great in 10th grade this year that we may not have enough kids to run our College in the Schools (CIS) courses…we are getting creative how to keep them,” Hecimovich countered.     

Cameras to be purchased

The superintendent thanked building and grounds director John Dols for his commitment to the district and his willingness to shave his budget to make way for the district to buy cameras to install on the grounds and in specific parts of the building. 

“John is giving up his entire building and grounds budget to purchase new equipment because he feels strongly enough about us having cameras at the school,” Hecimovich said. 

One member wanted to know if that meant that no new maintenance equipment would be purchased at all, or if it meant that repairs of existing equipment would be done judiciously.

“He won’t be buying anything new — he’ll just be fixing things if they need to be fixed because he does feel that strongly about the cameras,” Hecimovich answered.

After the workshop ended, a closed meeting was held to address negotiations strategies.  No action was taken during the closed meeting.  The regular board meeting is slated for Wednesday, Feb. 20, at 6:30 p.m. in the Kingsland choir room, and the next workshop will take place on Monday, March 4, at 6 p.m. in the Kingsland Elementary School conference room just off the office. Both meetings are open to the public.