Levy listening session draws crowd
Nearly 70 people showed up late Monday morning at Washington Educational Services Building to learn more about a potential school levy referendum and provide their input to the Brainerd School Board during the district’s second community listening session.
This meeting was hosted by the district and the Brainerd Lakes Chamber.
Superintendent Steve Razidlo and Steve Lund, director of business services, gave a brief presentation on the proposed levy referendum. The school board is expected to make a decision regarding the district’s expiring $199 per pupil levy between Aug. 15 and 26.
If the board allows the levy to expire or if a $199 per pupil levy question does not pass in November, the board will need to make about $2 million in budget cuts by the 2012-13 school year. In June the board cut $1.2 million in operating expenses, which resulted in the elimination of 40 district positions.
Ninety percent of school districts in the state currently have an operating levy. The state average for these local operating levies is $936 per pupil. They account for an average 14 percent of a district’s total funding. In Brainerd, the current $199 per pupil levy is 3 percent of the total district funding.
If the current levy expires, school taxes will go down about $40 per $100,000 of property value. If the district asks for a $249 increase, it would generate $350,000 in additional revenue and cost taxpayers an extra $10 annual per $100,000 of property value.
If the district asked for a $399 per pupil operating levy, the maximum that school board members appear to be contemplating, it would generate $1.4 million in additional annual revenue and cost taxpayers an extra $40 per $100,000 of property value.
After a presentation, comments and questions were taken by the audience.
“If we’re going to get private sector jobs back in this area that we need, we need the people to be properly educated,” said Bob Herschey. “The private sector can educate them in specialties but jobs require a strong education. I hope you’ll continue to provide and increase the sciences and computer technology because that’s what private industry needs.”
“So far administrators want to test the waters for another referendum,” Marv Begin, a vocal opponent of the 2007 failed referendum, said. “You haven’t really made a point why we need this referendum.”
Begin said so far the listening sessions — one was previously conducted last month —have only produced “higher income earners,” or those making more than $60,000 a year, he said, who announced they would vote in favor of any referendum no matter the cost. Begin said if he earned $100,000 a year he’d be in favor of more money for teacher salaries and schools but he does not.
“I don’t think everybody realizes how bad the economy is here,” said Begin. “Thousands of families are eating in soup kitchens, losing their homes and sleeping in cars. ... School systems want more money. I think school systems should thank God they have a good steady job and a good steady income.”
Reached by telephone after the meeting, Begin said his reference to thousands of families eating in soup kitchens was a reference to a statewide situation not the Brainerd School District.
“I have two children who graduated from this school district and they are smart, wonderful citizens,” said Marcia Ferris. “If it’s OK for Edina to have a good school district, Brainerd has to, too. I’ll pay more. I have a $100,000 home. I’ll pay an extra $10. I’ll pay an extra $20. It’s worth every dime of it.”
Valerie Rangen said she’d like to see a positive campaign in support of the schools, much like the successful Rotary campaign which showed local people holding signs that listed the many good things about living in the lakes area.
“I would like to see some of us rising up and saying let’s get together and take a big picture, we’re voting for it,” said Rangen. “We want this to be a positive place. You’re not going to get people coming in with jobs, doctors who want their kids in public schools (if a levy fails).”
Elaine Leach asked what the business community was doing to bring in more jobs in the community. She said people need to consider the role that the Legislature played in funding education, by borrowing money from the schools to keep the state operating.
A few in attendance said they would like to know what programs would need to be cut if a levy doesn’t pass or if the current levy expires.
In recent years the district has lost its marketing, service learning, restaurant, automotive and electronics programs, as well as a reduction in its agriculture offerings for high school students due to budget reductions and increased college entrance requirements.
Razidlo said the board may have to discuss whether the district should go to a four-day school week if the levy isn’t renewed.
George Burton said he opposed the district’s acceptance of federal stimulus funds the last few years, which allowed the district to temporarily hire more staff.
“You can’t bank on it —literally,” Burton said, of one-time stimulus funds.
Mark Ronnei, general manager for Grand View Lodge and a member of the school Community BudgetCommittee, spoke about his role on the budget committee for the past four years.
“We’ve scrubbed this budget,” said Ronnei. “I think they (the district) would tell you I’m one of their critics who challenges them. I firmly believe the people on that committee have made a difference. Our first meeting was us yelling at them for not getting input from the community. We yelled at them for several meetings.”
Ronnei said the state should be sued because of the way it funds education.
“We keep electing people who do what they do to our educational system. It’s criminal, they should be sued,” said Ronnei. “It’s ridiculous and we keep sending these people back and doing the same thing. They don’t (care) about education. If they did, they wouldn’t be doing what they’re doing.”
Ronnei said the district is spending its money more wisely now than four years ago because administrators, teachers and staff are making due with less and less.
“The reason we put that budget reserve in place is because we don’t trust the state of Minnesota and it is so true, it came to fruition,” Ronnei said, of the state again delaying its aid payments to districts as a way to balance the state’s budget. “We really don’t have a budget reserve of $6 million. Steve (Lund) has an IOU in his drawer from the state of Minnesota.”
Razidlo said even if taxpayers approved a $399 per pupil levy referendum in November, it would soften budget cuts but not entirely eliminate cuts. If the district wanted no budget reductions and to retain a 5 percent unreserved fund balance, the levy would have to be significantly higher. But board members have not asked for those figures, said Razidlo.
Brent Gunsbury said, as a business owner, he gives his staff raises based on the economy. He asked how can residents be assured that if a levy passes, that the extra funds wouldn’t be “bartered away” to the district’s eight union groups.
Razidlo said all eight bargaining units are in the beginning stages of negotiations. He said he couldn’t speak about what is happening in negotiations but he said bargaining is a two-way street and hopefully all are sensitive to the economic times.
“I’ll support a levy,” said Ann Pritschet. “There are interesting ideas being put forth today but if we need to cut further, I don’t know how we can address those. We need to continue to have the operating levy we have. I don’t know how we can manage otherwise.”
“I know the economy is very serious, there are many people unable to find a job in this community,” said Barb Lapka. “I want to know what the school district’s eight groups of people who receive a nice salary, what are they willing to give up to keep this quality of education for children?”
One woman said most people are working and having a difficult time but the referendum, even if the district decides to go with a middle levy amount, is what most people spend going out to dinner.
“How could we not give that to our schools?” she asked.
“I can’t think of anyone in this room that hasn’t benefited from someone helping you,” said Ron Stolski, Brainerd High School football coach and former athletic director. “My parents were children of the Depression, like yours were. They didn’t have any money but they paid taxes and made sure we had an education. I know our faculty, our administration have never worked harder in their history than they’ve worked the last few years.”
Stolski said he asks his players each year to think about what they’ll settle for and what they’ll be remembered for.
“Are we creating and maintaining an environment people want to be a part of?” Stolski asked. “Two-hundred forty students left this school district last year to go someplace else. Two reasons: high class sizes and high fees for activities. We have a great faculty here. I get a chance to travel quite a bit now, both instate and outstate. Instate no one can believe what we’re going through now. We’re almost a laughingstock. ‘Your kids pay what to play in the band or to run cross country?’ People will go where they are welcome. Or we get faculty who decide to go somewhere else. We get people turning down good positions here to go somewhere else. We have to take a look here. We have a great school here. I wanted to remind you, that someone helped you, and it wasn’t easy.”
Community listening sessions are also planned for 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Forestview Middle School cafetorium and 6:30 p.m. Thursday at the Nisswa Elementary School Library.
JODIE TWEED may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 855-5858.