DELANO, MN – In April, 276 registered voters within the Delano School District participated in a survey regarding a potential operating levy that could be on the ballot in November.
The Delano School Board learned the results of the survey Wednesday, May 12.
Of those polled, 73.6% supported renewing the existing operating levy, which provides about $1 million for the district and will expire in 2022. However, when it came to adding a new operating levy that would increase taxes, support for an increase large enough to stave off more cuts was 33.3%.
Interviewees were told that the district may ask voters to increase property taxes to provide additional funding for the district and were asked, “Based on what you know now, would you favor or oppose such a proposal?”
Initially, 36% of interviewees said they were in favor, 53% were opposed, and 11% had no opinion.
Interviewers then read a number of statements and asked if each statement of potential impacts would make the interviewee more or less likely to vote for such a proposal.
Interviewees prioritized these potential impacts and statements: offering more resources for struggling students; programs to prep students for college and career; expanding technology and computer science programs; maintaining or reducing class sizes; maintaining or expanding band, music, and choir; adding more world, or foreign, language programs for younger students; the fact that the average levy in Minnesota is $1.25 million higher per year, or $482 higher per student; and expanding online learning opportunities.
After hearing those statements and potential impacts, the level of support for increased taxes increased to 55.6%, while 25% said they would never vote for a tax increase, no matter what the amount or how the money raised would be used.
“The good news is, while the initial reaction started off pretty weak about increasing the operating levy, by the time people heard the examples I’ve gone through, support jumped almost 20%,” said Baker Tilly Director Don Lifto, who presented the results of the survey. “To give you an idea of how significant that is, I’ve probably done 500 of these in the last 20 years. There were only two or three of those where the difference was that much from the initial reaction to the reaction after information. It is significant. On the other hand, 55.6% is basically right at the margin of error, so it’s on the bubble.”
Lifto told the board that the margin of error was 5.9%; meaning final results could be 5.9% higher or 5.9% lower than the survey indicated.
How much of a tax increase did interviewees say they would support? In random order, they were asked about the following annual tax increase amounts based on a $300,000 home: $135, $180, $225, and $270.
Support was as follows: 58.5% for $135, 51.2% for $180, 37.8% for $225, and 33.3% for $270. Those numbers were higher for new or unlikely voters who voted zero to two times in the last nine elections, and lower for active voters who voted at least six times in the last nine elections.
Based on those results, Lifto said an operating levy increase of about $150 for an average homeowner would be feasible, but that changes in the final ballot proposal and factors such as economic conditions and campaign efforts could affect voter support and turnout.
Business manager Mary Reeder said the amount needed to prevent further cuts would be $270 annually for a $300,000 home.
“If we decide to ask for the $150, or if we decide to ask for something a little higher or a little lower, depending on where we want to go, those are all discussions I think we need to have,” Chair Lisa Seguin said. “Either way, it sounds like the $270 is likely not a question that we would probably be putting out there. And so, either way, we’ll likely be putting together content for our community to understand that, even with this increase, there will be, probably, future cuts to the district. We’ll just want to quantify those and talk about what those implications are.”
Reeder said she would crunch numbers to quantify the level of cuts that would be needed based on the different scenarios in advance of a special school board meeting Thursday, June 10. During that meeting, the board is slated to make a decision about putting an operating levy question on the ballot in November.
The board has a number of options.
It could opt to put a renewal of the operating levy on the ballot in November or not, add a new levy with a renewal on a November ballot, or wait to put a new levy on the ballot until 2022.
“In most scenarios, if we don’t get it all done in one year, we’ll end up with two different levies, which is going to be messy and confusing to taxpayers,” Seguin said.
“We can make sure we get the renewal and, if we happen to get a ‘no,’ we have another shot to ask again,” Board Member Jim Gierke said.
Superintendent Matt Schoen said the district could put a renewal on the ballot in November, and a nine-year operating levy on the ballot in 2022, so both levies would expire in 2031.
“We would always land on an odd-year election,” Reeder said. “The legislature has tried to take away the ability to run odd-year elections.”
Board Member Amy Johnson said, “I don’t know if we can risk more than a renewal. That’s my one vote. I’m not ready to say I’m in support of any increase at this time.”
She asked when some of the district’s bond debt would come off the books. Reeder said she would need to research that, but it could be as soon as three years.
“If you have something going off, and you’re asking for something that would replace that same dollar amount, you can say it would not cause a tax increase,” Reeder said. “Waconia did that a few years ago. They had something going off on the bond side, so it was a zero tax impact.”
“What if it’s $300 coming off the bond in three years? We should wait three years and ask for $300, instead of skimp by with $150 and try to go back within 10 years to get more money,” Johnson said. “That’s what people get really fired up about.”
Seguin said that is something the referendum committee and school board should consider.
Odds and ends
In other business, the board:
• approved the hiring of Delano Elementary School Principal Rachel Schultz, who will earn a base salary of $102,000 plus benefits.
• approved the hiring of Delano Intermediate School Principal Katie Thompson, who will earn a base salary of $110,000 plus benefits.
• approved Health Partners as the new dental insurance provider for district staff. The change is expected to save district staff money, while including additional coverage for children on the plan.
• approved the LGU James Metzen Mighty Ducks Grant application for an improvement at the Delano Area Sports Arena. The cost of the improvement is $132,575, and DASA is requesting $25,000.
• approved the Delano High School dance team summer trip to Buena Vista University in Storm Lake, IA.